The Need for a More Integral Approach To Criminal Justice

Written for the “Symposium on the growth of the carceral state” University of Virginia
16-17 april 2009

The problem with our current criminal justice system, and crime and punishment generally,
are an early warning system of sorts for society. They constitute the canary in the coal
mine, an indicator of danger that often lies beyond our capacity to perceive. The problems
we face as a society in this concern, are multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, and require
both horizontal and vertical responses. To date, both the Liberal and Conservative
responses to address the problems have been partial, fragmented, alienated and alienating.
The basic difference in sociopolitical orientation between Conservatives and Liberals tend
to separate along these lines when addressing the problems: the Conservative tends to
place blame within: the Liberal, without. That is The Right tends to favor interior
changes, e.g. character education, family values, religious belief, industriousness,
self-responsibility etc. almost to the exclusion of exterior change. The Left on the other
hand, tends to favor exterior changes, e.g. material improvement, economic redistribution
welfare statism, etc. almost to the exclusion of interior development. The Conservative
Choir must acknowledge that exterior development and distribution are often unfair and
uneven for various people, and that this is responsible for a good deal of their problems.
The Liberal Choir must recognize the interior aspects of development by not forgetting one
of Kant’s central points: freedom does not mean being able to do anything one wants: it
means, rather, following one’s own highest dictates. Thus freedom, personal or political,
demands interior development.

Both camps need to acknowledge that it is not “either/or”, but, rather “both/and”. Any
attempt to address the issues around our system of criminal justice must be integrative.
We must also keep in mind Karl Popper’s insights on piecemeal l engineering: because any
policy enacted will have unforeseen and often unintended effects, we should only affect
changes bit by bit, and monitor carefully the effects of so doing. We must also allow
those affected by policy to voice their criticisms. Any attempt at an integral approach to
the problem confronting us would be well-served by an insight made by Donald Rothberg in
his essay “Transpersonal Issues at the Millenium.”

“Inquiry and learning increasingly occurs in the context of a connected, collaborating,
multi-cultural group of diverse persons who are trained and competent in several types of
somatic, emotional, national, aesthetic and spiritual ways of knowing. This group of
individuals will be able to balance what we now call “masculine” and “feminine” qualities
and approaches; will be interested in “inner” and “outer” transformation in accordance
with core ethical, social, political, and spiritual values; and will be grounded in
particular social, community, cultural, political and ecological settings.”

Martin Wright in his “Justice for Victims and Offenders” rightly notes “that the failure
of contemporary criminal justice is not one of technique but of purpose;what is needed is
not simply new programs but new patterns of thinking.” Our understanding of the core
issue, justice, is connected with a social paradigm and, social dynamic, that we have
difficulty seeing objectively because we are part of it. Keeping that in mind, it is
imperative that we remain cognizant of the reality that the problems with our criminal
justice system are likely manifestations of wider social ills. From that perspective we
must note that true reform in the area of criminal justice cannot be, to some degree,
achieved without social justice. Crime in general tends to remind us that something is
amiss with society, but that something we don’t like to think about, so we attempt to
banish the problem by blaming them for what we don´t like. In that context Carnegie-Millon
Criminologist Alfred Blumstein is on point “Once criminal policy in the United States fell
into the political arena, little could be done to recapture concern for limiting prison
populations…..Our political system learned an overly simplistic trick: when it responds to
such pressures by sternly demanding increased punishments, that approach, has been found
to be strikingly effective, not in solving the problem but in alleviating the political
pressure to “do something.”

To most, the “tough on crime” attitude seems a good thing: a return to basic values a
refocus on the rights of victims and a parting from the “bleeding heart” policies of the
past. In that atmosphere, as the British criminologist Andrew Rutherford notes: “All
natural tendencies toward stability appear to have evaporated. Not only as there been a
quantum leap of unprecedented proportions in prison populations, but there appear also to
be no indications of any counter forces which might impose limits.” That course has been
extremely costly on every level, and it is unsustainable.

That said, we should be careful that we do not generalize about crime because there are
many different types of crime; committed by many different types of people, which require
many different types of responses. Any truly integral approach to the problems of crime
and punishment, criminal justice, cannot be separated from its understanding of human
psychology; of oral development of the relationship between the individual and society; of
our vision of human possibility. That suggests that the problem of how to have a “good”
criminal justice system is not solely a secular concern for issues of fairness and justice
cannot be completely severed from the religions perspectives they historically derive
from. Tor the vast majority of folks those perspectives are inextricably bound up with
religious views: justice is one of those ultimate questions, like truth and life’s
meaning, that bridge whatever distinctions we try to draw between sacred and secular.
In the context of the current economic crisis confronting us it might not be unwise to
couch the current debate primarily in utilitarian terms; i.e. what is the greater good for
society at large. So few people seem to realize or reflect on the act that our terribly
expensive system of criminal justice comes at a great cost to other programs that are more
beneficial to our society across the board; programs that better ensure that there will be
fewer victims in the future etc. In other words the increasingly obvious failures of our
current way of doing things can be used as a focal point that permits us to address a
wider spectrum of problems that plague us, i.e. a successful reformation in the area of
criminal justice, crime and punishment could have important implications for other social

Nevertheless absent increasing public debates, frank and factual discussions about the
nature and consequences of the failure in criminal justice (crime and punishment
generally) that are free of underlying political, ideological motives and manipulation and
devoid of simplistic and unrealistic formulas to real, meaningful alternatives –
reformative policies will continue to elude us.