Why are victims playing second fiddle to convicted criminals?

By Marc Debbaudt

Given that prison is full of people who have proven incapable of following the law and respecting the rights of others, it is certainly bad to be incarcerated. Yet, in the debate over prison and punishment in California, the one who should be at the front of the line is being thrown to the back; the victims of the criminals.

For most of us, depriving our freedom would be awful. Incarceration is admittedly a bit more than depriving one of freedom. Incarceration as punishment is compounded by forcing criminals to mingle with other criminals; for most of us, we would not sleep too well. Most of us would do anything to avoid that fate.

The reality is that county jails and state prisons are not pleasant places. One of the reasons our society sentences people to prison is to deter people from committing crime and to send a message that we will take away your freedom. The fact is that the indignities of incarceration are not worth the benefits of committing a crime.

Perhaps the lack of jobs available for criminals when they are eventually freed compels them to commit more crimes. Perhaps their untreated mental health issues overcome good judgment. Perhaps their substance abuse problems were not dealt with sufficiently while they were incarcerated. I’m sure these all play some part in why criminals, when released, voluntarily choose once again to re-offend.

Then, again, perhaps some people choose to commit new crimes for other reasons. It could be that they learned some new ways to victimize others in prison academy, or maybe they are philosophically committed in their exercise of freedom of choice and free will to pursue as a preference the romantic outlaw life-style. Or, maybe incarceration isn’t so bad anymore; perhaps it’s tolerable and being caught committing additional crimes is worth the minor down-side risk.

I know I would not like to be incarcerated. It would be a radical change in my experience of daily life. But, then, I work for a living. My single-parent mother insisted I go to school. She insisted I get up and move and be on time because she had to work, too. My mom insisted I not miss school, because she could not miss work. She insisted I get a job and help pay for college. I didn’t get to just hang out and do nothing.  I didn’t realize until after I was done with college that I had a choice to not go to college.

The fact that recidivism is high does not mean that incarceration failed, unless you decide the only reason for incarceration is to prevent crime in the future. Does Punishment work? I think we can say with certainty that prison stops criminals who are incarcerated from committing new crimes while they are in prison. Isn’t that good enough? Well, maybe they commit new crimes against other prisoners.
Is incarceration effective? That is, does it teach the criminal a lesson that changes his or her life and dissuades them from committing future crimes? Maybe not. But is that a reason not to do it? Perhaps it simply does not matter if punishment works.  Perhaps it is enough that it is deserved.

What does our society do for the victims of crime? There is no government program that provides free one-on-one counseling after their lives have been traumatized, their property stolen. The government provides convicted criminals countless services, all devoted to improving the criminal’s life. The victim-a mere afterthought whose name appears merely to be the necessity by which the criminal can obtain those benefits. It reminds me of the old joke: Want to have your country rebuilt? Just declare war on the United States.

Well, prison is one source of restitution for victims. To the victims, whose voices are seldom heard, it does not matter if crime is reduced or eliminated by the use of punishment. What matters is that the criminal is punished for the criminal act they committed. Victims I work with on a regular basis aren’t really concerned that incarceration changes the life of the criminal. In fact, they may not even enjoy hearing about all of these noble efforts by the government to help criminals change their lives, which often times do not work. That is not their first priority.

Are there really methods more effective then incarceration as punishment that truly reduce future crimes and change the pattern of harmful criminal negative behavior?  Are they cheaper than incarceration? How effective are they? Do they serve justice to the victim of crimes? I think the evidence proves that there are no effective alternatives that make a sufficient statistical difference to warrant the expense.

While some people may disagree, punishment by incarceration is valuable if it accomplishes nothing more than making a victim of the crime feel better. And sometimes, it is an incentive that probably helps at least some prisoners reduce their criminal inclinations. As a lifelong prosecutor who has worked with countless victims, I tire of hearing that punishment does not help criminals or that recidivism is a good reason to get rid of our system of jails and prisons and replace them with expensive malarkey.

Why is this debate always focused on what is good for the prisoner, and not the victim?

Marc Debbaudt is President of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys. The view and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ADDA, which represents nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys.


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