Commentary: Unified approach could fix criminal justice system

Christian Science MonitorDecember 30, 2010 

LOS ANGELES — America's criminal justice system provides neither justice nor security.

Beyond the harsh sentences and wrongful convictions (including innocents on death row), the system we've created fails to support victims or reform criminals. Furthermore, the entire system is rooted in a punitive approach to crime.

America, the land of the free, has the world's largest prison population (2.3 million) and its highest incarceration rate. And our overcrowded prisons are disproportionately filled with blacks and Hispanics, causing many urban communities to lose trust in a system they consider biased and racist.

These fundamental flaws have been ignored for years, but the staggering cost of fighting crime at a time when cities and states are going broke is forcing taxpayers to pay attention. People are right to ask: Why continue to perpetuate a disastrously expensive and largely ineffective approach to public safety? Isn't there a better way?

There is. But we have to be willing to dismantle our current piecemeal system and replace it with an integrated model: a single Public Safety Agency at the local level.

Crime — and fighting it — is expensive. Taxpayers bear a heavy burden to fund the police and related emergency services (911, medical response, trauma centers), the courts, the correctional system, probation and parole agents, and social service agencies.

The costs of these services is exacerbated due to the system's built-in inefficiencies such as redundancies, turf battles, compartmentalization, lack of cooperation, and lack of integration. The relationship among various components — for example, between parole agents and social service agencies — is often adversarial. This undermines effectiveness and leaves those most in need of help caught in the middle.

Finally, the political incentives that pervade the system lead to a focus on superficial metrics achieved (arrests, convictions) — not lives changed. This focuses the system in a wrong direction and also neglects the prevention of crime because prevention can't be quantified.

The net result is that victims and their traumatized families rarely receive adequate financial or psychological help. And criminals rarely get rehabilitated; instead they go to prisons that serve as virtual graduate schools for criminality. As a lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department, I have lost count of how many times I've seen repeat criminals on the road to jail again. Society ends up paying economically and morally.

The Public Safety Agency would be a paradigm shift.

It would make law officers true servants of the public, enhance transparency in law enforcement operations, and provide proper support to the victims, law violators, and their families.

It would prevent first-time offenders from getting hardened and hardened criminals from getting worse. It would break the cycle of crime. Additionally, the system would provide far superior services at a fraction of the cost of the present system. The agency would represent a complete transformation in how government provides justice and safety to communities across America. In essence, it would be a person-centered, not crime-centered, approach to law enforcement.

The agency would be a comprehensive collaboration of all public-safety personnel. Sworn officers, prosecuting and defense attorneys, emergency response teams, child and family services, social-welfare agents, community-service specialists, rehabilitation, job training, drug- and alcohol-abuse counselors, negotiators, psychological counselors, and probation and parole agents all would work together in the same building with the same mission.

They'd work seamlessly and transparently with a goal of preventing crime and rehabilitating criminals. Consolidation of numerous entities would cut the cost of operations instantly by perhaps two-thirds, saving taxpayers billions. Cross-training officers of the new agency would create well-rounded public servants. Increased transparency and focus on rehabilitation would bridge the chasm that exists between the police and the public, enhancing cooperation that would lead to true community policing.

When crimes occur, sworn public safety agents would respond. Depending on the incident, prosecutors, public defenders, and appropriate family service agents might accompany them. As soon as the crime scene was stabilized, supporting agents would assist both the victim and the alleged violator.

A coordinated response would bring greatly needed checks and balances, ensuring that officers properly enforce the law and that the prosecutors and public defenders uphold the rights of the accused. Additionally, family services and psychological counselors would assist the victims and provide support in coping with traumatic incidents.

A key distinction of these new agencies would be their focus on rehabilitation. The person arrested would receive instant attention from counselors, and efforts to reform and reintegrate the law violator would continue until true rehabilitation has been demonstrated.

The criminal's family would be enlisted to create an environment that promotes rehabilitation. The collaborative efforts of public safety agents specializing in probation, parole, social services, education, job-training and counseling would combine to turn a law violator into a law-abiding citizen. Constant monitoring and support makes all the difference between a mere ex-con (who may well end up back in jail) and a productive member of society.

Additionally, the agency would work to stop crime before it starts. Professional mediators would patrol high-stress communities, helping to resolve neighborhood disputes before they escalate into gang violence.

The integrated public safety approach has been tried on a smaller scale. In the early 1990s, the Los Angeles Police Department tried a program called the Domestic Abuse Response Team, which paired civilian counselors with police officers. In case of any crime involving domestic violence, after the uniformed officers declared the area safe, the team's personnel (plainclothes officers accompanying civilian case workers) responded and took care of the victim and victim's family.

They provided aid, counseling, information, and helped find shelter for the victim. Their approach directly contributed to breaking the circle of violence in domestic situations.

This was a very successful program. The only component missing was that the suspect wasn't provided counseling on how to control his behavior and thus break the cycle of violence. Unfortunately, due to lack of resources and funding, the program couldn't be implemented department-wide.

Case studies suggest the public safety approach is promising. In a rare study, public safety lieutenant Vinicio Mata compared three consolidated public safety agencies (in Sunnyvale Calif., San Diego, and White Plains, N.Y.). Mata concluded that consolidation is beneficial compared to the way stand-alone entities manage emergencies.

Further evidence that a public safety system should be embraced across America comes from the effective collaboration and efficient sharing of information in smaller cities where several components of the criminal justice system are housed in the same building, such as the city hall.

In these times of tight budgets and diminishing resources, we can reduce spending on policing, transform the structure and functioning of law enforcement, make it more accountable to the public, and make it work to prevent crime and rehabilitate law-breakers by consolidating our disparate criminal-justice system resources into a unified agency that puts people first.

(Sunil Dutta is patrol watch commander at Foothill Division for the Los Angeles Police Department. The views expressed here are his own. He wrote this for The Christian Science Monitor.)

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