Integrating Mindfulness into the Criminal Justice System

October 16, 2013

The practice of mindfulness is making great inroads through American society. In the healthcare field, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program is a standard practice. The “mindful schools” movement is growing rapidly in our secondary schools. The armed forces are using mindfulness to help our troops with post-traumatic stress disorder. In the private sector, Google is leading the way with its Search Inside Yourself program, and its creator, Chade-Meng Tan, recently released a book of the same name. Last year, US Representative Tim Ryan released “A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance and Recapture the American Spirit” – a political leader making an strong case for mindfulness in American society.

What is mindfulness? One of the most common definitions is given by Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose,
in the present moment, and
nonjudgmentally.” Congressman Ryan describes it as “finding ways to slow down and pay attention to the present moment.” Meditation, tai chi and yoga are all common forms of mindfulness, and there are many others.

In recent years, study after study has shown the benefits of mindful meditation. It reduces stress. It increases focus. It increases empathy. Neuroscientists using modern technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have found that mindful meditation produces beneficial changes to the brain itself. In short, it makes us healthier and more productive.

The criminal justice system is often the last place in American society to embrace innovations accepted elsewhere. While there are hopeful pockets throughout the country where mindful practices are being integrated into the criminal justice system, there is need for a widespread movement to make mindfulness a standard practice.

Everyone involved in the criminal justice system – from all sides – can benefit from mindful practices. There are three groups within the criminal justice system that can particularly benefit: the incarcerated, police officers, and prison guards.

Many of the people incarcerated in our prisons and jails have experienced significant trauma in their lives – from physical, sexual or emotional abuse as children, to substance abuse as adults, to the trauma associated with being incarcerated. They are returning to our streets in record numbers, often with this underlying trauma unaddressed. At the same time, states have dwindling resources to support them. Teaching people mindful meditation in prison can have a huge payoff both while they are behind bars and when they return to our communities. At a time of dwindling resources, all that is required for mindful meditation is breath – which is free and available to everyone.

Police officers and prison guards have two of the most stressful and difficult jobs in the nation. Mindfulness can help reduce that stress – just as it is doing in the military. I believe that if police officers meditated for a few minutes at line-up before hitting the streets, they would be more alert, less stressed and more effective. If the military has been able to overcome its initial skepticism about these techniques, why shouldn’t law enforcement and corrections be able to?

It is time to take account of the sprinkling of terrific mindfulness programs working with the incarcerated, police officers and prison guards throughout the country – and it is time to build a movement to make mindfulness a standard part our criminal justice system. Doing so will lead to a criminal justice system, and a society, that is safer, fairer, and more effective.

David Onek is the Executive Director of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law. He formerly served as a Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission and as founding Executive Director of the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice at UC Berkeley Law School.