Prison Reforms ‘Mistake a Symptom for the Sickness’


In a Boston Review essay, Cornell University law professor Joseph Margulies says prison reforms “aimed at population-cutting rather principle are dangerously incomplete” and “mistake a symptom for the sickness.” He writes, “The problem is not that we send too many people to prison, though we certainly do. The problem is that we expect prisons, punishment, and control to solve social problems of poverty, lack of opportunity, and mental illness. As a result, we have distorted and misused our entire criminal justice system—from the first contact with law enforcement, which frequently takes place in the public schools, to the lasting disabilities imposed upon people when they step out of prison.”

Margulies writes, “Reform will never be more than the flavor of the month unless we develop a transformative vision, an alternative organizing philosophy for criminal justice in the United States. We may continue to sand down the roughest edges of a pointedly unjust system…But if we are serious about fixing criminal justice, the time for tinkering is past.” He says three principles should guide a transformation of American criminal justice: People have a right to be treated with dignity; communities deserve to thrive, and government has an obligation to be fair.

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