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‘Tough on Crime’ is Political Lip Service

In a recent interview with Kentucky Educational Television, Holly Harris, from Justice Action Network, hit the nail on the head in her refute of the effectiveness of the incarceration-first approach to criminal justice. Holly explained that “[t]he old-school, tough-on-crime approach to criminal justice may make for good political commercials,” and yet “in reality…hasn’t helped improve public safety or reduce recidivism.” She characterized this antiquated approach as “throwing good money after bad,” and she is absolutely right.

The failure of the “incarceration first, incarceration always” approach to criminal justice is by no means isolated to Kentucky. In fact, this view was adopted in most states, but many are disavowing it as a failed policy. The facts have shown that locking up nonviolent, low level offenders is not only expensive for the taxpayer, but it has a negative impact on public safety. Too often the primary offense that led to a nonviolent offender’s engagement with the criminal justice system is rooted in a substance abuse or mental health issue that goes unaddressed while that individual is incarcerated. As Holly aptly noted, “throwing them into a prison population with truly dangerous criminals, while at the same time offering them few opportunities for treatment, rehabilitation, or vocational training, nearly guarantees that they will re-offend and wind up back in prison.” This is not to say that nonviolent criminal offenses should not go unsanctioned. However, when imposing sanctions, many criminal justice systems have lost sight of its ultimate goal, which is the assurance that an offender does not re-offend.

So, while the tough-on-crime soundbite may be appealing to lawmakers, and may make sense as a knee jerk reaction to crime, it has not served the public’s interest. For public safety’s sake, I second Holly’s challenge to lawmakers to put this message aside in favor of one that places the emphasis on effectiveness.

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