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Opinion

How to fix America's broken criminal justice system

Our ultra-costly and ultra-punitive system is neither protecting victims nor rehabilitating lawbreakers. It's time for a new approach, one that consolidates disparate components into unified local Public Safety Agencies that provide both justice and security at a much lower cost.

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They would work seamlessly and transparently with a goal of preventing crime and rehabilitating criminals. Consolidation of numerous entities would cut the cost of operations instantly by perhaps two-thirds, saving taxpayers billions. Cross-training officers of the new agency would create well-rounded public servants. Increased transparency and focus on rehabilitation would bridge the chasm that exists between the police and the public, enhancing cooperation that would lead to true community policing.

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Coordinated response to a crime

Any time a crime occurs, sworn PSA agents would respond. Depending on the incident, prosecutors, public defenders, and appropriate family service agents might accompany them. As soon as the crime scene was stabilized, supporting agents would assist both the victim and the alleged law violator.

A coordinated response would bring greatly needed checks and balances, ensuring that officers properly enforce the law and that the prosecutors and public defenders uphold the rights of the accused. Additionally, family services and psychological counselors would assist the victims and provide support in coping with traumatic incidents.

Justice and security through rehabilitation

A key distinction of these new PSAs would be their focus on rehabilitation. The person arrested would receive instant attention from counselors, and efforts to reform and reintegrate the law violator would continue until true rehabilitation has been demonstrated.

The criminal’s family would be enlisted to create an environment that promotes rehabilitation. The collaborative efforts of PSA agents specializing in probation, parole, social services, education, job-training and counseling would combine to turn a law violator into a law-abiding citizen. Constant monitoring and support makes all the difference between a mere ex-con (who may well end up back in jail) and a productive member of society.

Additionally, the PSA would work to stop crime before it starts. Professional mediators would patrol high-stress communities, helping to resolve neighborhood disputes before they escalate into gang violence.

Proven method

The PSA’s integrated approach has been tried on a smaller scale. In the early 1990s, the Los Angeles Police Department tried a program called the Domestic Abuse Response Team (DART), which paired civilian counselors with police officers. In case of any crime involving domestic violence, after the uniformed officers declared the area safe, the DART personnel (plainclothes officers accompanying civilian case workers) responded and took care of the victim and victim’s family.

They provided aid, counseling, information, and helped find shelter for the victim. Their approach directly contributed to breaking the circle of violence in domestic situations. This was a very successful program. The only component missing was that the suspect was not provided counseling on how to control his behavior and thus break the cycle of violence. Unfortunately, due to lack of resources and funding, the program could not be implemented department-wide.

Case studies suggest the PSA approach is promising. In one of the rare consolidation studies conducted, public safety lieutenant Vinicio Mata compared three consolidated public safety agencies (in Sunnyvale Calif., San Diego, and White Plains, N.Y.). Mr. Mata concluded that consolidation is beneficial compared to historical stand-alone entities that managed emergencies via specialization and fragmentary response.

Further evidence that a PSA system should be embraced across America comes from the effective collaboration and efficient sharing of information in smaller cities where several components of the criminal justice system are housed in the same building, such as the city hall.

In these times of tight budgets and diminishing resources, we can reduce spending on policing, transform the structure and functioning of law enforcement, make it more accountable to the public, and make it work to prevent crime and rehabilitate law-breakers by consolidating our disparate criminal-justice system resources into a unified agency that puts people first.

Sunil Dutta is patrol watch commander at Foothill Division for the Los Angeles Police Department. The views expressed here are his own.

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