Our criminal justice system is antiquated and fractured, and there is no better time than now, in the shadows of national and local tragedies, to re-evaluate. The deaths of students and adults alike at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and Sgt. Sean Gannon here on Cape, should never have occurred. We cannot afford to keep postponing reform.
Prisons are over capacity and have become de facto mental health facilities without care. In the 19th century, Dorothea Dix accelerated the asylum movement in Massachusetts, a national call to change perceptions and approaches to the mentally ill, which emphasized treatment and rehabilitation over imprisonment. Dix wrote, “The confinement of the criminal and of the insane in the same building is subversive of that good order and discipline which should be observed in every well regulated prison.” Mental health institutions gained traction in the early 20th century without regulation, and poor conditions and lack of oversight led politicians to push for closure rather than reform. They deinstitutionalized, with the promise of community-based mental health care and no real treatment alternatives, re-creating the path to prison.
Overpopulation today has been exacerbated by the criminalization of addiction. Addicts caught with drugs are arrested, booked, and treated akin to perpetrators of domestic assault or violent crimes. Rather than evaluate the individual and their history from a medical perspective, the system disregards the roots of the problem. Imagine a high school student, good grades, star of the basketball team, with no criminal history, breaks a leg. The hospital prescribes opioids, the student uses the recommended dosage and becomes addicted. The script runs out, they buy off the street to feed the addiction because it’s cost effective, get caught and are shoved through the system as a criminal. Taxpayers and the individual both bear heavy costs, and the behavior and patterns remain unchanged.
Restructuring is required if we want to reduce drug use, beginning with the relationship between our judicial system and mental health community. People need to be evaluated and receive a proper diagnosis. Imprisoning addicts and the mentally ill is expensive, leads to more abuse in prison, longer sentences, overcrowding, and increased rates of suicide andsolitary confinement, a practice that damages the psyche and again costs taxpayers. We need to invest in alternatives to the justice system, such as mental health centers, drug treatment, and school programs. The better the education and treatment we provide, the safer our communities will be.
That said, high risk individuals can no longer be given passes. Those accused of violent crimes should be held without immediate opportunity for bail, and evaluated by a mental health professional until cleared or medically diagnosed. Diagnosed patients must undergo rehabilitative institutionalization, and violent offenders kept off the streets. We cannot remain complacent, the system is failing our citizens and first responders.
I’m frequently asked where I stand on gun control. My answer is this: I support our second amendment as constitutional and just, but the Bill of Rights is itself an amendment and the Constitution needs to reflect the realities of the citizens it currently governs. We should not allow semi-automatic or automatic weapons on our streets or in the hands of civilians, and gun owners should be required to carry liability insurance. Guns are largely insured under homeowners or concealed carry policies, which cover self-defense, use of deadly force, personal use, civil and criminal defense, legal retainers, and injury, but fails to adequately recompense victims. Most potentially dangerous objects in our society require coverage, and this measure would increase the owner’s duty to ensure responsible use and provide recourse when something goes wrong. Victims would be compensated for hospital bills, rehabilitation costs, and even funeral fees.We’ve seen this work. Auto fatalities have fallen 25% in the past decade. Insurance is required, but safety is incentivized through discounts for good driving records and safety features. In contrast, gun fatalities rise each year. Cars and guns are both dangerous pieces of equipment, they should be regulated similarly. The right to bear arms is fundamental, but accountability is vital. Let’s put common sense back in our system and come together across Cape Cod, the Commonwealth, and the country to fix this.