Sunday, August 2, 2009

Changes in Criminal Justice

I am the elected prosecutor for the City of Seattle. For the last eight years, I have worked in the criminal justice system. I want to share some thoughts about the changes in the way we deal with crime in Seattle.

In Seattle, we are moving beyond relying entirely on incarceration as our only tool for dealing with crime. Looking at what motivates people and using that motivation to change their behavior is an effective way to fight crime. We have employed the concept of community-involved crime prevention for some years now. This concept is based on the notion that community norms drive behavior. To understand how this works, think about smoking. Anyone over the age of 30 remembers a time when people routinely smoked in offices, meetings, theaters, restaurants and even airplanes. Smokers would walk into a home and ask for an ash tray. Our community norms have changed to such a degree that most people could not imagine lighting up in any of those places. It's not the fear of getting caught the prevents even the most ardent smoker from lighting up, but the social response that such a behavior would trigger.

The same can be said of many non-violent crimes like shoplifting. Most criminals do not believe that they are going to get caught. In fact one shoplifter I prosecuted recently told store security that she shoplifted at their store because she had never been caught there and did not think that they cared. Most people do not shoplift. The motivation is not generally the fear of getting caught, but a norm established long ago, by parents, friends and neighbors that stealing is wrong. The question then becomes, how do we convince shoplifters not to steal?

Jailing them is one answer. Depriving someone of their liberty is a significant punishment. Yet, jailing someone does nothing to change the inmates' world view. Jails and prisons are filled with people who think that it's okay to steal. In some ways, when we jail someone we are reinforcing their view that it is okay to steal.

Associating thieves with people who do not steal can also be an effective method to change behavior. In the Seattle Community Court we require defendants to do community service in the community where they offended. Americorps volunteers organize community service working with citizens groups. The defendants do work in the community and associate with people who believe that it is wrong to steal. This intervention has changed individuals. I have seen people change. It is a remarkable thing.

We are getting to a place where we use jail beds for people who need to locked up. Incarceration is expensive and is necessary for people who are dangerous or who just will not get the message any other way. (My personal pet peeve in that category are graffiti taggers.) We are finding smarter, more effective ways to reduce crime. We do not have all of the answers, but I believe that we are asking the right questions.

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