Violence is a critical public health issue and one that contributes to an astounding number of years of life lost, with homicide and suicide among the top 5 causes of death for those aged 1-44.
Yet our response to violence as a society is not to treat and prevent but rather to criminalize and punish, which doesn’t seem to have helped prevent crime, much less have addressed the root causes of crime, as I have noted before.
The issue of criminal justice in the U.S. and the desperate need for a shift in the justice paradigm, from a system focused primarily on punishment to one emphasizing restorative practices, is one that has once again been on the forefront of my mind in the face of extensive coverage of the trial of Dharun Ravi last month.
Quick background: Dharun Ravi was charged on all 15 charges he faced for using a webcam to spy on his roommate, Tyler Clementi – Clementi killed himself soon after the spying incidents, though as this board member of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention eloquently captures, blaming Ravi for Clementi’s suicide is utterly inaccurate and unfair. Suicide is an incredibly complex phenomenon, which always has multiple risk factors at play, including diagnosable mental health conditions which are present in over 90% of cases of completed suicide. You cannot draw a causal link between any one specific incident and suicide and you certainly cannot blame another individual for one’s suicide. Although Ravi was not charged for Clementi’s death, I find it highly unlikely he would be facing 10 years in prison as he currently is if it were not for the fact that Clementi killed himself.
Though Ravi’s actions – and any homophobic motivations behind them – were wrong, I am sure they have been, are, and will be repeated across dorm rooms everywhere – college kids can be foolish and immature, and I fail to see how putting Ravi behind bars for 10 years does anything to address the root issues here. We as a society need to be more tolerant of differences, more respectful of each other, and more communicative with those around us. We need to stop discriminating against others based on race, sexual orientation, religion, and any other such category. But instead of revisiting what we as a society are doing wrong that leads to incidents such as this one, we are instead throwing the blame at the feet of one college student, punishing him in a way that will neither help him, nor prevent cases like this in the future. It seems we perpetually take the easy way out – revisiting what we do as a society and as university, school, and other communities, would be much too difficult; blaming one individual and punishing them – far easier.
Moving beyond this one incident to the array of crimes that land people in prison, the true solution lies in prevention. At the individual level, depending on the nature of the issue, this means things like drug treatment, interventions with at-risk families, and school completion programs (among other things), all of which research has demonstrated to be “more cost-effective than expanded incarceration as crime control measures” according to this Sentencing Project report. At the population level, this means instilling values of respect and equality, tolerance and diversity, beginning at very young ages, at home, in our schools, and in our communities – through education, prevention programs, policies, laws, and more.
Yet, this does not seem to be the direction in which we are moving. I recently attended a symposium during which a prominent political figure, speaking on internet crimes (particularly child sex trafficking and sexual abuse), said “I really think the most meaningful solution is to put these people behind bars for as long as possible – as far as I’m concerned, that’s what prisons are for.”
I felt sick to my stomach – not a word about prevention or restorative practices in his talk, do people really not see how we are not only failing to treat and prevent and improve society, but also resigning ourselves to perpetually be throwing people in jail?
But there is hope, and there are ways out of this mess. A more recent publication of The Sentencing Project compiles the essays of 25 leading scholars and practitioners on their strategic vision for the next 25 years of criminal justice reform.
A truly incredible compilation of perspectives that is worth a read, but for now I will highlight some points from the essay capturing the public health perspective, written by leading violence prevention public health scholar and practitioner, Deborah Prothrow-Stith.
She writes, “We can’t address the many challenges in the criminal justice system without reducing the number of people entering the criminal justice system in the first place. This means prevention must be on par with law enforcement and punishment. As a nation, we already promise to respond to violence with expensive and sometimes harsh solutions. We need a companion promise, the promise of prevention.”
And, as she points out, this is an area in which we do have firm science as to what works and what doesn’t. Public health-based programs such as CeaseFire Chicago and the Urban Networks to Increase Thriving Youth (UNITY), school-based violence prevention efforts that have proven effective, programs like Boys and Girls Clubs and the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America initiatives, and the Nurse Family Partnership home visiting program have all proven to reduce crime and violence in meaningful ways.
Instead of focusing on punishment within a flawed and discriminatory system, instead of cutting prevention funds (as of last week, the Prevention and Public Health fund is yet again on the chopping block, much to my – and many other’s – dismay), let’s focus our attention on programs like the ones mentioned above – programs that prevent violence, promote health, and foster a more vibrant and productive society.
This post is cross-posted at http://occupyhealthcare.net.