In this country, we often take pride in our toughness. As far as justice goes, that means that we try to avoid being too soft on crime. But what does “soft on crime” really mean? The phrase is often used to accuse people or institutions of not giving out adequate punishment or forsaking their responsibility to crime victims by giving offenders more lenient sentences than they may deserve. For violent crimes in particular, the justice system is expected to give out harsh retribution to appease victims and sympathetic onlookers.

While the hard on crime and soft on crime duality may be morally pertinent, it may be detrimental to the effectiveness of crime prevention. If interests lie in reducing recidivism and cutting crime in general, then arguing over the harshness of punishments is not the correct mindset to evaluate the penal system and an alternative framework is necessary to examine punishment.

A July 6 article called “An Axe Falls on Criminal Justice Spending” in The Crime Report, a website that reports on the criminal justice system, discussed Republican leaders’ proposals for drastic spending cuts on criminal justice programs. The plan includes slashing the Community Oriented Policing Services and all of the funding for the detention of illegal immigrants. Funding would be partially cut for juvenile justice programs and the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which places emphasis on local immigrant related crimes. In short, communities would become less relevant in addressing crime as those responsibilities would be taken over by expanding large-scale programs such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

What will this do for our nation? Let’s think about this scenario on the small scale. In a city or an institution there are variations of sizes in programs that deal with crime and behavior. For example, at the University there are multiple methods of dealing with campus misbehavior; the police are often involved, as are campus authorities. In addition to those institutional methods, we have a few alternatives like mediation services between students, faculty and staff and similar services between residence hall staff and residents. These programs are our version of community justice and follow similar philosophies to those of some of the programs that are being reduced and cut.

In the dorms, cases that are dealt with through the mediation process often conclude with students signing promises for repairing the harms they caused. In substance abuse cases, students often do a combination of reparation activities, including a small educational task that encompasses learning about harms done to the body, as well as another task that would normally be the responsibility of the resident advisor. This is done in order to both compensate the RAs for their time spent dealing with the case and to involve the residential community in an activity that is an alternative to party culture.

If crimes or misbehavior are addressed through the larger campus conduct system, then they usually leave a mark on the students’ records. This isn’t the case in the housing mediation program. Though students sometimes take on more responsibility by performing reparative projects, once they are finished they are relinquished of their responsibility for the offense. Such systems fall under the restorative model since their objective is to address harms caused rather than inflict revenge of any sort. It is much easier to follow restorative methods in community-based conflict-resolution programs rather than in larger-scale ones because the complexity of problems cannot be fully understood in large contexts.

In short, someone needs to remind our leaders of the importance of community in cutting crime and resolving conflicts. Being “soft on crime,” if that means punishing offenders less harshly than a purely retributive system would allow may well be the more effective avenue if the goal is minimizing crime in the long run. Punishment performed completely outside of the scenario in which the offense took place does not instill as direct an understanding of consequentiality as do restorative measures. The duality of “hard on crime” and “soft on crime” may be a red herring, distracting us from the most important concern for the justice system: finding an effective solution to crime, which requires an intimate knowledge of the act and its effect on others.

Anna can be reached at asiobhan@umich.edu.

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