The Center for Justice and Human Dignity established a judicial institute devoted to foregrounding human dignity in the administration of justice. Guided by a Steering Committee of current and former judges, the Judicial Institute will focus on facilitating a deeper understanding of the myriad harms of imprisonment and the life-long effects on those who are incarcerated, as well as their families. Its programming will increase participants’ knowledge of and interest in alternatives to incarceration and innovative sentencing practices.
There is no overstating the opportunity judges have to address the harms of mass incarceration in the American prison system. In determining sentencing for the convicted, judges have the difficult task of interpreting the law, considering community safety, and evaluating the convicted person’s instigating life circumstances. Moreover, judges are faced with the challenge of understanding which past issue(s) must be mitigated for the convicted person to be successful, the perspective of victims, how prison conditions might undermine rehabilitation, and which responses most meaningfully support the individual, and in effect, the community’s needs.
A number of judges in the U.S. and abroad are evaluating alternatives to long-term prison sentences that will greatly reduce mass incarceration. “While there is certainly a subset of high-risk offenders for whom incapacitation is warranted,” concludes research recently published by the University of Chicago, “in general, placing people in custodial sanctions appears to contribute to, rather than reduce, reoffending.” If we hope to improve this dynamic, judges must have the space to think more holistically and the support to reset the default use of prison.
Mindful of judicial independence and ethical considerations, the Judicial Institute provides a supportive network and a platform for judges to consider the diminishing benefit of lengthy prison sentences and to explore effective alternatives.