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America’s Obsession With a Suspect’s Rap Sheet Misses The Point

In early March of this year, six people were shot in California at a Sacramento bar. Immediately after the incident occurred, news about this horrific incident became the talk of almost all local and national news outlets. 

Initially, the focus was on the horrific nature of the crime and the pain of the grieving families. But, as soon as police arrested the main suspects of the crime, the focus took a huge turn as journalists started digging into the two brothers suspected of committing the atrocity in criminal history. 

They Had Quite a Rap Sheet

Both brothers had a criminal record history, with both having been convicted of crimes in the past. The coverage of their rap sheets got the attention of midterm hopeful politicians and commentators who quickly blamed policing policies and advocated for harsher sentencing for repeat offenders.

This is not the first time rap sheets have become the center of focus when a person commits a crime. This coverage is part of a long playbook of rap sheets held up by the media, politicians, and prosecutors whenever a person is charged with an offense and has a prior conviction. Unfortunately, these rap sheets are mostly held up as evidence of the failure of the person facing a charge and why they should be put away longer. 

But that is not how John Pfaff, a Fordham University School of Law professor, sees it. According to him, the rap sheets speak more of the failure of our criminal justice system than it does of the person against whom they are held.

It is Systemic Failure

“If a person keeps going in and out of jail repeatedly, the question should not be what’s wrong with the individual, but rather what’s wrong with the system,” says criminal lawyer Douglas I. Leifert

Because of these rap sheets, it is easy for many people to believe that the reason crime is increasing is a policy change. But, most people only get to see just one side of the story because you will never hear success stories of people who had a long rap sheet, got the help they needed, and went on to live crime-free lives. 

Prison wardens do their best to program inmates, but the programming is not to help the inmates for their return to society. Instead, it ensures that inmates remain containable when in correctional centers. If drug treatment and cognitive behavioral therapy are offered to these individuals before or after they leave prison, there is a high chance that recidivism rates can drop significantly. 

It’s a Vicious Cycle

Studies have shown that most violent offenders were, at one point, victims of violence or witnesses to violence such as domestic violence. So they grow into traumatized young adults, commit crimes, are sent to prison only to experience more trauma, and then are churned back into the same community in which they failed to fit in without being adequately prepared. 

The right and the left have always been on opposite sides in policy reforms. But, there is a need for all parties to come together to find a solution that works. Instead of looking at a person and thinking they are a failure, it would be best if both sides came together and asked what’s best to help the person.

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