Commentary: wrong assumptions breed misguided criminal law outcomes

A noted behavioral specialist and criminal justice expert asks two pointed questions in a recently penned Psychology Today article.

University of Texas professor and research director William R. Kelly first poses this query: “What is it about being in prison that eliminates addiction to cocaine?” And he follows up that question with this one: How does a behind-bars outcome “mitigate a mental illness or improve executive dysfunction among those with cognitive impairment?”

The answer to those questions is simple and the same, he submits.

And that is this: Incarceration does not promote betterment in any sense. In fact, it is illusory thinking to believe it does. The lock-them-up philosophy that largely underlies the American “justice” system is in Kelly’s view both misguided and the author of pervasive and preventable problems. The academic/author believes that fundamental rethinking is in order to reverse a wrong-road philosophy and to enable new offender outcomes that actually promote justice and improve public safety.

High numbers of convicted individuals did not wantonly engage in wrong behavior, Kelly notes. In legions of cases, their conduct owed to mental impairment or drug addiction, not simple bad judgment.

And that reality (which Kelly buttresses by reference to many relevant prison-linked statistics) makes punishment-based outcomes marked by lengthy prison sentences often illogical and counterproductive. What legions of offenders need is treatment, not a jail cell. An alternative-to-prison approach is a proven recipe for reducing the recidivism rate, curbing taxpayer outlays, unclogging the courts, promoting public safety and helping persons with problems reestablish dignity and reassimilate into their communities.

The mantra of “more punishment for more people” is a sadly misapplied policy in the criminal justice realm, says Kelly. It needs to disappear.