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In thinking about our criminal justice system, the challenge is to ask the right questions.

This issue of PT looks into the legal principle of criminal justice. As with any policy discussion, the initial challenge is to ask the right questions: (1) What is our criminal justice system trying to accomplish? (2) Why? (3) How do we get there?

Historically, our objectives have included the "3 R's," rehabilitation, restitution, and retribution, with emphasis on the latter. Why? Because the focus has been on apprehending miscreants rather than preventing their criminal behavior in the first place. We've implemented the policy by building more prisons, hiring more guards, creating larger police forces and enforcing mandatory sentences and harsher penalties.

Policy-makers, however, are increasingly understanding the importance of a fourth objective: deterrence. The reasons are obvious: it could free up a lot of money for more socially-desirable objectives as well as actually making our society safer—the ultimate objective.

The challenge is not insignificant: The underlying network supporting an effective criminal justice system has been weakened by the disappearance of strong family, church, and cultural restraints, which deter criminal conduct. They have been replaced by structural changes in society which, to the contrary, foster the growth and spread of anti-social behavior: the transformation of a local and closely-knit rural society into a depersonalized and anonymous urban one; an increasing gap between wealth and poverty; a cult of violence reinforced by the media; and changing cultural values that place greater emphasis on material accumulation than on humanistic or social achievements.

An overburdened court system enters too late in the process to effectively cope with the problem, and must then deal "fairly" with the criminal who has arrived at its doorstep. Moreover, the means at the court's disposal are generally inadequate to the task: the judge has the option of putting the criminal back on the street or sending him to a prison where he is further brutalized and educated in criminal behavior.

Our criminal justice policies should embrace the system as a whole—what are we really trying to accomplish? What is the most effective way to get there?