The ultimate goal of our corrections system is much more than just punitive
There is a misconception, I think, that individuals convicted of crimes should remain behind bars indefinitely. Or, that these individuals should be forever marked with the stigma and second-hand citizenship of being criminals. Or, that they deserve nothing more than to pay for their crimes, and languish in prison without any consideration for their rights as human beings.
This is not the criminal justice system that I want, nor is it the one society needs. Yes, people who commit crimes should be held accountable for their actions. Yes, people who commit crimes should face consequences that deter them from re-committing and that denunciate the crimes they have committed, so others don’t follow in their footsteps. But, people forget that the ultimate goal of our correctional system is not punishment; the goal is to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders into society, where they can live a life that contributes meaningfully to society without re-offending. “Fixing” the problem doesn’t mean convicting and locking offenders up. It means working towards reducing the amount of crimes committed, and preventing others from feeling the need or desire to commit crimes in the future.
In 2015, Marco Muzzo got behind the wheel of his SUV, drunk, and took the life of three children and their grandfather. It was a tragic and heartbreaking result of drunk driving – and for all those who followed this story, it hit hard. Muzzo, whose family net worth is estimated at $1.8 billion, pled guilty and took responsibility for the loss of life that he caused. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail for impaired driving. I won’t get into the debate of whether his sentence was too strict or too lenient – we’ll save that for another day.
But, the Muzzo case has recently been brought back into the media spotlight, as Mr. Muzzo is eligible to apply for unescorted, temporary absence from prison this October. “Unescorted temporary absence is a release of limited duration in which an offender leaves a corrections institution for medical, administrative, community service, family contact, parental responsibility, personal development (rehabilitation), or compassionate reasons, unaccompanied by corrections staff.” It may not be difficult to understand why some would be outraged by this. He got behind the wheel of his SUV, extremely drunk, and killed four people. Why the hell should we let him out?
Actually, I find it difficult to be outraged. One of the fundamental cornerstones of our correctional system is reintegration into society. We want prisoners to be able to serve their sentences and leave as better individuals who will not re-offend. And this cornerstone of reintegration is supported by research that shows prisoners are much more successful at reintegration post-sentence if they are permitted to take gradual steps outside prison, and maintain relationships with family and friends. The research also shows that reintegration reduces recidivism (the likelihood to re-offend). The John Howard Society published a paper based on numerous studies showing the positive effects that reintegration has on offenders and society. The report states, “[a]n essential way to prevent recidivism is by providing an effective reintegration process; one that offers reintegrating individuals services, supports and treatment to address the issues that brought them into conflict with the law in the first place. Reintegration is a crucial component of community safety. People who have experienced time in jail and/or have police records are often eager to move beyond their past and to create a new life and identity for themselves.”
In other words, helping offenders get back on the right track isn’t about treating criminals “nicely”; it’s about reducing recidivism and ensuring community safety once these individuals have served their sentence and are released. This can only be done if we focus on ways to help offenders reintegrate by providing meaningful employment opportunities, stable housing and encouraging positive social networks to prevent reoffending. Focusing on reintegration and rehabilitation can only result in more people contributing meaningfully to society – we cannot expect criminal offenders to leave jail without any assistance to steer them away from returning to a life of crime. For drug-addicted offenders, or offenders with mental health issues, this is even more important. We cannot expect individuals whose criminal behaviour is fueled by their addiction or mental health to reintegrate into society on their own. We must care about reducing (and eliminating) recidivism. We cannot just throw people in jail and label them as criminals for life without caring about what happens when they’re released.
Permanently labelling individuals as “criminal” or “bad” because of their criminal records undermines the goal of community safety: “the more we socially exclude persons with police records, the more we edge toward creating a class of Canadians who are un-employable. It is a faulty assumption, based on stereotypes, that people with police records are universally dangerous or “bad” people who lack character.” Muzzo did a horrible thing. And tragically, four lives were lost. A family is broken. They may never heal. But, Muzzo is still serving his sentence. He will have a criminal record once he’s out. He won’t be getting behind the wheel of any vehicle if he is granted an unescorted, temporary absence next month. He will leave prison after serving his sentence, and I hope that he will have learned from this and never drink and drive again. I hope that he will do his part to encourage others to not drink and drive. I hope that he will become an example of how a young man born into a billion-dollar empire is not above the law, and will face the consequences of criminal offending. But, how can we expect someone like Muzzo to change his life around post-release, and encourage others to not stray down the same path as him, if we only care about his punishment and not what happens once he is released?