The concept of the criminal justice system doesn’t really come up until something really shitty happens in the news, and then people freak out about how criminal X isn’t getting nearly as lengthy a prison sentence as having committed crime Y deserves. Justice was not served, and our weak judicial system lets another monster go with a wrist slap. I want to examine what a criminal justice system would look like if justice were to truly be served, so that next time there is a trial on the news, we can bitch and moan about its outcome in a more appropriate fashion.

Now, Socrates would immediately demand that I define justice, and then mock me for whatever answer I provide. However, provide one I must in order to progress in my analysis of the criminal justice system because otherwise this whole ordeal is pointless. Typically we attribute punishing wrong-doers as justice, but we must make the distinction between justice and vengeance.  An eye for an eye cannot balance the scales of justice as the repetition of an act can only weigh down the one side further. The other issue with punishment as justice is that it cannot rescind an action. If someone gets killed, they’re not going to be brought back by any means human beings can muster. Justice cannot be a return to balance because the world-state has been irrevocably changed. Of course, leaving the action with an apathetic shrug is out of the question as well, so I posit that justice is the prevention of further acts of injustice. The scales are tipped in a future world where unjust acts are committed with less frequency. Justice is not a return to balance, but the creation of it.

Now that the philosophy is done, we can return to our criminal justice system. Traditionally there are three ways that are followed in the pursuit of justice: punishment, incarceration, and rehabilitation. I will look at each of these on their merits and decide which one best suits my definition of justice. I’ve already decided, by the way. I am not writing this blindly. You’ll just have to keep reading to see which one I pick. Or skip to the end, I suppose. I can’t stop you.

We discussed punishment as being a flawed method of justice all of two paragraphs ago, but it must be revisited again as there are those that claim that punishment works as a deterrent, preventing future crime by disincentivizing potential criminals from committing nefarious deeds. No one wants to get punished; it sucks. Society seems to take a somewhat jovial attitude toward prison rape because it only adds to the deterrent factor of punishment. Punishment as prevention seemed to be solidified into fact in the 1970s when Isaac Ehrlich, an economist, concluded that rehabilitation could never work and that murdering criminals was the only way to stop crime. This was actually a huge deal, and this deterrent factor became so mainstream we are still dealing with people who insist that murder solves murder. Unfortunately, economists study money, and human motivations do in fact exist outside of that jurisdiction from time to time, and punishment as a deterrent has been largely rebuked, with 88% of people who study crime instead of dollars agreeing that the death penalty does not in fact disincentivize people from committing crime.

So since punishment won’t stop future crime, we now come to incarceration. This idea is that if someone is locked up, they can’t be out in civilized society getting their crimes up in everyone’s business. I cannot argue with this. If someone is in jail, they can’t be out criming with their buddies. However, decency seems to dictate that we should probably eventually let people out of prison. The “worth” of someone’s crime is calculated in how many times the earth rotates around the sun, somehow, and this is used to arbitrarily decide how long someone should not be out criming. How many years of your life is worth stealing a car? It’s an absurd question to ask, but that’s the question we pose to judges and juries every day of their working lives. Apples are much more similar to oranges, so combining an act with a time-frame is just a guessing game based on precedent and circumstance. And ultimately, the person will leave jail, quite possibly to commit further crimes. Prisons are unsurprisingly filled with villainous individuals, and being surrounded by that kind of culture might even worsen anyone who spends any amount of time there. If releasing someone from prison is more often than not going to lead to recidivism, than releasing someone from prison does not actually lead to justice within my definition. To prevent future crime, people who are convicted would need to stay in prison indefinitely. Of course, if everyone is convicted of a life sentence no matter the crime, you might as well just kill them from the get-go. Not to disincentivize other criminals, but simply to save time. They are going to be removed forever from society, and we already seem content with an arbitrary measurement of the worth of their lives, so where they go does not matter.

This probably sounds horrible, but we must remain objective in our discussion of justice because the story goes that it is blind. Nobody can commit a crime from beyond the grave (…yet), so it has to be taken into consideration when we are looking for the proper execution of justice.

We’ve come up with one just solution, but we have one more option remaining: rehabilitation. If we can convince someone that crime is bad, or get them to a place in their lives where crime is less of an option, then that would certainly prevent future crime.  This would eliminate the arbitrary nature of gauging the worth of an action in years, as it would become a simple matter of when the person would be ready to integrate back into society. For those incorrigible rapscallions who will forever be unrepentant about their transgressions that are so often the poster children of death penalty supporters, they would simply remain in prison until they die simply because they would never conform to acceptable standards of society. But for everyone else, how about instead of just holding on to rapists for a bit before letting them go, for example, we teach them a gender studies class or something so that they learn that maybe rape isn’t such a nice thing to do? Once they get the idea, they can leave. Maybe it takes one year, maybe it takes twenty, but it would be entirely dependent on the individual.

Now, some might say that those dastardly criminals might pull the wool over everyone’s eyes and convince people that they’re totally cool and should go back into society. Admittedly, they might with their brilliant criminal wiles, but they also have the potential to do that now. We have parole hearings to decide literally that, and this is within a system where very little effort is made to address rehabilitation, so their readiness for society would be due to pure chance rather than any particular effort of the justice system. This way, a team consisting of maybe a social worker, a variety of counselors, prison staff, etc. would provide testimony about the rehabilitation status of any given inmate and would deliver consensus on that person’s ability to conform to social standards, thus preventing future crime.

So we have two options for an appropriate delivery of justice: rehabilitation or death. Next time someone complains that a guy who seems to keep stealing cars “only” got a two year jail sentence after several priors (or however long, I’m not a lawyer), you can ask what kind of steps are being taken within those two years to actually address this vehicular kleptomancy and whether that is an adequate enough time to properly deliver those services to this individual, or casually suggest the perpetrator’s death.