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Rethinking the Purpose of the Criminal Justice System: Rehabilitation

Rethinking the Purpose of the Criminal Justice System: Rehabilitation

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Editor’s Note: This is the final article of a three-part series examining the U.S. criminal justice systemRead the first article

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D., Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University

In the first part of this article series, we looked at retribution as a petty and unproductive aim for the criminal justice and penal system in the United States. In the second part, we looked at rehabilitation as a more enlightened aim for offenders. But we also talked about how sentencing prisoners to death or life in prison can’t be squared with a rehabilitation philosophy.

Because of this incongruity, we might do well to rethink our position on life sentences and capital punishment. Looking again to Norway, judges there are limited to maximum 21-year sentences for convicted criminals regardless of the charges.

This policy was the source of outrage in Norway and the United States when right-wing extremist and mass murderer Anders Breivik was sentenced to just 21 years for the slaughter of 77 people, most of them youngsters, in Norway in 2011. But the Norwegian approach is based on the idea that no offender is beyond the capacity for rehabilitation. And again, in terms of results, it seems to be effective, at least more so than America’s results.

[Related: Commander During 2011 Oslo Attacks Discusses Response, Gives Lessons Learned]

You might be thinking “I don’t care. Even if people like Breivik could be rehabilitated, I wouldn’t want that. They should rot in prison or be put to death for what they did.” But again, that’s just the revenge impulse — the unproductive and unhelpful revenge impulse.

Imagine for just a moment that someone like Breivik could in fact be rehabilitated. Imagine we could be confident that, after a period of time and training, he could be released as a safe and productive member of society. Perhaps he might even be repentant and seek forgiveness for his heinous crime. If his inclination for homicidal behavior could be thoroughly repaired this way, would it not be morally preferable to allow him to contribute to society again rather than execute him or lock him away forever out of spite and condemnation?

Speaking for myself, I can totally empathize with the instinct to forsake such people forever. I lost an uncle in the 9/11 attacks. I watched my cousins grow up without their father. And for years it was impossible for me to even consider the possibility that murderers — especially mass murderers — might be capable of redemption. The world is much easier to parse if our minds insist that things are simple. Some people are just evil, and evil can’t be fixed. Right?

Surely, some people cannot be cured of their harmful inclinations. But some definitely can. One need only look to countless stories of offenders — including convicted murderers — who made mistakes in their early lives, completed their sentences, then turned their lives around and went on to be upstanding members of society again. So we know it’s possible, only we don’t know for whom. But given that it’s possible, then shouldn’t all offenders at least be given the chance to straighten up and atone for their misdeeds?

[Related: From Convict to Community Leader: One Man’s Journey toward Redemption]

This is what Norway does with its 21-year maximum sentence policy. Yet, at the end of a prisoner’s sentence, if the court feels that the prisoner has not shown satisfactory evidence of rehabilitation, the court may extend the sentence in five-year increments in perpetuity. So this way Norwegians are not locked into a commitment where they’re obligated to free prisoners who may still be a danger to the public.

There are many problems with how we handle crime and punishment in the United States. But if we apply critical thinking, follow the evidence, and use the tools of science to guide our policies, there is much we can still do to improve on the status quo.

About the Author: Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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