It is for this reason that criminal justice reform advocates have so vocally championed policies like the First Step Act that focus on rehabilitating incarcerated individuals and easing their transition back into society. These efforts have significantly improved our systems of justice; but there is still much to be done.
Justice has two qualifiers. The first is the formal punishment that the state imposes. The second, and more important, is the internal punishment a criminal with a conscience imposes upon themselves. This is the reason that remorse has become such an important piece of our criminal justice system. Research has shown that recidivism is correlated with expressions of remorse and guilt, meaning that the path to rehabilitation does not rest with incarceration alone. A criminal who shows no remorse for their actions is likely to be punished more severely because they demonstrate no conviction of conscience and are thus more likely to engage in future criminal behavior.
Although statute allowed an individual to receive up to 54 days of good conduct per year of incarceration, as demonstrated before the U.S. Supreme Court in Barber v. Thomas, the previous method of determining GCT resulted in a de facto cap of 47 days. This was clearly not the intent of the original legislation that explicitly specified the 54-day cap. In fact, the only reason that the previous interpretation was supposedly legal is because of a flawed legal principle known as Chevron deference, which compels federal courts to defer to federal agencies’ interpretation of statutes. As a result of the new method, the Bureau of Prisons reported that 3,163 inmates were released from custody during the first round of recalculations in July 2019.
As countless formerly incarcerated individuals and statistics could tell you, being sent to prison is rarely sufficient to prevent recidivism. It’s time that we realize this fact and deeply reform the ways in which we choose to treat criminals, both inside and outside prison walls. The First Step Act and its resulting regulatory changes are just one way in which we can steer our criminal justice system toward one focused primarily on redemption and rehabilitation rather than punishment.
As Raskolnikov learns, it is impossible to ever truly escape from the consequences of our actions and the conviction of our conscience. Ultimately, it is these two things that prevent people from committing crimes in the first place. We have spent the better part of a millennium focused almost solely on consequences. Perhaps it’s time that we give conscience a chance.