As I hear debates on immigration policy, I see that the broader issue of criminal justice needs to be addressed. For what crimes should we incarcerate people? Incarceration is often not the end of one’s punishment nor is it very effective at rehabilitating criminals. Personally, I believe incarceration should be reserved for violent crimes and those posing significant risks to others. I know there are many who believe murderers should face the death penalty, but my lawyer friends have said the public costs of execution are actually far higher than life in prison due to the costs of all the retrials and presenting the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.
However, the issue is less clear as there are people who pose a significant risk to others even though their crimes may not be violent in nature. For instance, people who chronically drive intoxicated can kill innocent people, yet believe they are fully in control. There is also the issue of enforcing the judgments that attempt to bring about justice.
Finally, there is the issue of restoration when the courts get things wrong. I have heard people can be released from prison having only the clothes on their back and given a small amount of cash and being told they can go anywhere they like but can’t stay where they were dropped. Healing interpersonal relationships is hard enough, but leaving prison in a state of homelessness is not just.
First, I believe criminal records should be permanently accessible but with protections similar to credit reports so that cases that have legitimately been discharged from court become invisible to background checks. I realize this can be a harsh punishment, but it allows different people to put differing levels of trust in someone. For instance, a bank may not want to hire someone who has ever embezzled money whereas a construction job may only care about a lack of recent criminal history. Next, I would prevent anyone with unsettled court judgments from voting but restore the right to vote in all cases except voting crimes once the punishment has been fulfilled. I believe wage garnishment and asset seizure should be used in making restitution, but extreme care should be taken to ensure this does not infringe on one’s livelihood. In child support cases, visitation rights involving travel outside the custodial parent’s city of residence shall not be enforced because the child support payments could reasonably be construed as providing the necessary travel funds.
For environmental crimes such as dumping hazardous materials, I believe it fair to require the person to live in an area impacted by that environmental crime until remediation is complete. Although the EPA has vast power to fine, the best deterrent against environmental crimes is knowing you will personally be exposing yourself to the same toxins as everyone else. All drugs should be legal so addicts are more likely to seek help, but possession of more than a typical personal supply should remain a crime. As far as violent crimes, we need nationally consistent definitions of what those are. For instance, the definition of rape is being extended to any sexual act for which clear verbal consent is not given, though some jurisdictions still define rape as sexual acts coerced through threats of imminent bodily harm. As these laws are being revised, it is vitally important that they be crafted so that they don’t have unintended consequences.
As far as concerns of racial inequality and disproportionate burdens on the poor, I think these problems will get better by drastically reducing the number of crimes we incarcerate for. Crimes with defined values should not be compensated for the poor, but perhaps things like traffic violations should be based on income.