Senator Session’s recent appointment as U.S. Attorney General has elicited predictable concerns from progressives and praise from conservatives that the American justice system would trade its growing emphasis on rehabilitation for a return to punishment. These expressions reflect the customary swing of the policy pendulum that accompanies the switch from one political party to the other but it’s time to consider whether we need a pendulum at all.
With all that we have tried so far, recidivism rates have remained quite stable. Undoubtedly, there are promising approaches among ongoing efforts that merit a closer look, but we are far from identifying a set of solutions that will produce reliably positive results. And that’s okay, if we’re honest about it.
In his recent book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper; 2015), Yuval Harari contends that the Scientific Revolution—the same one that brought us space flight and penicillin —was not a revolution of knowledge, but a revolution of ignorance. Prior to the 16th century, it was widely assumed that answers to all of our questions existed; we merely needed to consult the right elder or spiritual leader. Modern science, Harari continues, requires a collective admission that we don’t yet have the answers to our most pressing questions. This is not the case in the criminal justice field, where experts abound.
Admittedly, it is a tough sell to any administration to operate under a stated policy of ignorance, but such an admission would likely spur unprecedented progress toward reforming the criminal justice system. Moreover, potential innovations should come from a broader range of contributors: incarcerated individuals, victims, prosecutors, defense attorneys, citizen scientists. There is little to show for social scientists’ longstanding monopoly in this field. We shouldn’t forget that the first few hundred years of the Scientific Revolution were fueled by amateur scientists.
Like any scientific pursuit, there is no guarantee that we will find the answers—certainly not in a political timeline, and maybe not at all. But acknowledging ignorance, rather than pushing a pendulum, might put us on the right footing to ultimately make a difference.