Our Quote of the Week reframes the notion of crime as a lack of opportunity. The “opportunity structure” to which Sargent Shriver refers includes necessities – adequate education, housing, health care, work – that are out of reach for far too many of us.
Sargent Shriver spoke these words in his 1974 Address at the Wake Forest University Carlyle Lecture. The speech focuses on the theme of justice. To make his points, Shriver compares the US and the then-Soviet Union, pointing out that although the US has been perceived as a more just nation than the USSR, the US, in reality, lacks justice for all of its citizens. He introduces the notion of a “Ministry of Justice”, whose focus would be more sweeping than the Department of Justice, addressing the injustices that marginalize and deprive people of their basic human rights.
On the topic of crime and punishment, Shriver has much to say:
“The greatest deterrence to crime is justice that is speedy. The criminal court is the central, crucial institution in obtaining that objective. Yet, virtually everywhere we find a shortage of judges, of prosecutors, and of accessory help for them both; we see hopelessly inadequate court facilities in almost all urban communities and in many others we find larger and larger dockets and heavier and heavier backlogs. Congestion and under-mannning force prosecutors to take emergency measures to reduce the dockets. Guilty pleas and reduced or even suspended sentences are sought on an almost desperation basis; plea bargaining, reduced charges, and dropped cases become the practice. And courts try to hear an inordinate amount of cases in one day in "assembly-line" justice. Such a system is not designed to further justice or promote respect for the law.
Yet, the development of justice has done virtually nothing to remedy these deplorable conditions. It neither leads others nor innovates on its own. It expends its efforts on dubious measures such as preventive detention and no-knock authority, when it should be focusing on securing speedy trials, on training fair and efficient prosecutors, and defenders, on equipping courtrooms and obtaining sufficient and able judges so that justice will be meted out surely and quickly. This would do more to reduce crime than all of the tough rhetoric.
We know, too, that crime is greatest among our youth and in our ghettos. almost 40% of arrests are for persons under 18. Some 70% of persons convicted under 20 years of age are rearrested within 5 years.
But why should such statistics surprise anyone? Our neglect in this area has been unconscionable.
Throughout our country, we still jail first time offenders with hardened criminals. Our juvenile detention homes are obsolete, crowded, and understaffed; often they become schools in criminal practice rather than institutions where rehabilitation can take place. We release offenders without aiding them to get jobs, or caring about the effect on them and their families of having to seek employment with a prison record.
Our jails are archaic, lacking facilities to teach gainful work, and destructive of the human spirit. Their doors have become turnstiles for the return of recidivists.”
Shriver’s observations are both astute and prescient. He identifies the causes of crime (poverty and lack of opportunity) as well as the effects of an inhumane justice system which would lead to our current legacy of mass incarceration in the US.
Today, our news is peppered with stories about the rise in crime in the US. What is often ignored, however, is the need for addressing the causes of crime, which Sargent Shriver describes as a failure in the opportunity structure. More and more, there is pressure to abandon criminal justice reform and to increase spending on policing and prisons, while the causes of poverty that often lead to crime go unaddressed.
To be sure, the issue of tackling crime in our communities is complex. But let us remember to address crime’s causes as well as its effects. Let us create a society that cares for all of its citizens, one that satisfies all of our basic needs: adequate shelter and nourishment, good health, solid education, economic opportunity – and dignity, safety, and justice. Satisfying all of our basic human needs will, in the long run, be the most effective crime prevention strategy we could possibly implement.