We can create a smarter criminal-justice system


In his final State of the Union Address, President Obama called for criminal-justice reform — one of the most important issues facing the country. The cornerstones of the criminal-justice system have been punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation. For too long, the focus has been on the first, with some mention of the second. Rehabilitation has barely been in the equation. This should change — and can change.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 95 percent of inmates are eventually released. What are they coming back to? If you went in without job skills and a solid education, plus an addiction, and your time in prison addressed none of those issues, how are you going to succeed?

If we are not giving our children the best opportunities, how do we expect them to stay out of the criminal-justice system?

We need to examine the why. It is time to do a quantitative analysis of the criminal-justice system, looking at what is working, what is antiquated and what can be improved.

Unfortunately, the why comes with a price tag. When we decided to impose sentences with minimum mandatories, resources were given for enforcement. Now that we are examining sentencing reform, we must provide the resources to make our communities better and give people chances to succeed, rather than being presented a revolving door. It is a wise investment in our own safety.

As a prosecutor, I know that some people are truly evil. No sentence is going to get them to change their ways. But the majority of offenders are not evil. Many act driven by poor judgment, desperation, addiction and mental illness. Additionally, environment often dictates one’s actions, with the defining line being opportunity. If one grows up impoverished, with a failing school and no tangible role models, the absence of a solid support system leads to missing the formula for success. The majority of those who bear the brunt of the pain as victims, as well as offenders, are people of color.

Taking a holistic view on crime is not a soft approach, but a more-intelligent way of thinking. Deterrence should come from investing in our school system, so that each child has the opportunity to succeed. When someone offends, diversion programs should provide a second chance. Addiction, education and mental illness must be addressed inside so that the person re-entering society is better equipped than when they went to prison.

There will be those who will not take the chances given, and they will re-offend. However, taking away the ability to right the lives of the majority of offenders out of fear of another Willie Horton episode is shortsighted.

The time to examine how we sentence people is now. The U.S. Senate is considering a bill that would overhaul sentencing structures. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is bipartisan legislation that merits the close attention of Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio. It opens the discussion regarding how to balance the needs of the victim who has been violated, keeping the community safe and punishing, yet helping, the offender to be a productive citizen.

I certainly am not advocating for throwing open the prison doors, because that is not the answer. Tough sentences are needed for violent crime, especially in the wake of gun violence nationwide. As someone who has heard the anguished sound of the cry from mothers, often of color, who have lost their children to violence, we have to be cognizant of safety.

However, we must ensure that every citizen is given a fair chance. Now that we know better, we must do better. We must take an enlightened approach, and look at all sentencing structures to make sure they are being applied evenly and fairly.

Melba Pearson is a prosecutor in Florida and the president of the National Black Prosecutors Association.