Sept. 15, 2014
America’s willingness to explore new alternatives to prison makes perfect sense, when you recognize that there is nothing especially “traditional” or sacrosanct about the use of imprisonment. Prison as an institution is only a little over two hundred years old. Imprisonment,, while the conventional response to criminal behavior today, was a rare and radical departure from the “Community-Based Sanctions” in place some 200 years ago.
As one commentator put it, “It is ironic and yet oddly appropriate that although eighteenth century America turned to imprisonment because alternative punishments had lost their ability to shame, late twentieth century America is turning to alternative punishments because imprisonment has lost its ability to deter and rehabilitate.” (Dan Kahan What do Alternative Punishments Mean; 63 U.Chi.L.Rev.591, p.631)
Even the prestigious Conference of Chief Justices, (made up of all fifiy State Supreme Court Justices) have passed unanimous resolutions in 2000, 2004, and 2008 acknowledging as much, “drug court and problem-solving court principles and methods have demonstrated great success in addressing certain complex social problems, such as recidivism, that are not effectively addressed by the traditional legal process”.
Living in a time when society has substantially broken down, where people lead isolated lives and where societal pressure may be minimal, community based courts have the potential to provide a structure for the rehabilitation of the offender, providing guidance, support, resources, and control where none had existed before.
In other words, the overuse of “imprisonment” is a choice that we have made, but can unmake, returning to our historical and traditional community-based responses to criminality.