- It punishes on the basis that offenders make “bad choices” rather than tackling the structures that induce those choices.
- The system claims “equality” yet some communities (notably indigenous peoples) are not treated equally.
- Punishment often does more harm than good, and increases the risk of re-offending.
- Victims are mostly excluded from the process, making it difficult for them to move on.
Rather than presenting these issues as simply of philosophical interest, Marks presents a strong case for attending to them seriously and transparently. Each problem is meticulously exposed, so much so that by the end of the book the reader is left wondering whether the current criminal justice system is in need of thorough revision, if not abandoning.
Underlying the four problems is a more fundamental problem; the system does not employ a problem-solving approach.
“Prison doesn’t solve the problem (we) expect it to solve; it doesn’t rehabilitate,” he says, rather “it augments any existing problem for the offender and for society.”Nor does it solve problems for victims. where they are often excluded from the process…
“… except as witnesses… (which keeps) victims effectively trapped in the ‘angry moment’.”Unfortunately, says Marks, most victims rights associations only exacerbate this entrapment by focussing on rage an anger; again, failing to take a problem-solving approach.
Then there is the cost. Prison is not cheap. In Australia it costs over $100,000 to incarcerate an adult and almost a quarter of a million dollars for a young person in a youth detention centre. Thus, attests Marks, prison is a massively expensive mistake.
Alternatives and Innovations
But, there are alternatives and Marks outlines a number of them, including; restorative justice, therapeutic jurisprudence, Koori courts (in Australia), and justice reinvestment. Many of these innovations have been used for the last couple of decades and they work.
“(They) reduce rates of offending (and reoffending), …reduce the alienation felt by many offenders and victims, (and) save the state money over both the short and long terms.”So, asks Marks, “why aren’t governments…embracing these ideas?”
Marks claims that as a society we still have an “appetite for ‘law and order’ policies – lock them up and throw away the key.”
Until we relinquish that retributive, punishment mindset we will not move to a more effective, cheaper and fairer model of justice. This book is an excellent addition to making that shift. It is relatively short (less than 200 pages), written in everyday language and easy to read. It should be read by anyone concerned about our justice systems.
1. Russell Marks is a former criminal defence lawyer and an academic with La Trobe University, Sydney, Australia.