07/20/2012 08:28 am ET Updated Sep 19, 2012

What's Our Goal, Anyway?

Nineteen years ago, Greg Ousley, then just 14 years old, murdered both his parents. He was charged as an adult, and sentenced to two consecutive 30-year prison terms. By the time he is first eligible for parole, Greg will be in his early 40s.

Greg's story -- chronicled brilliantly by Scott Anderson in the New York Times Magazine -- is hardly a rare one. In 2009, Human Rights Watch estimated that the U.S. had 2,500 juveniles serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. The Supreme Court recently ruled against such sentences, but with people like Greg still serving lengthy sentences for crimes committed as teenagers, the discussion is far from over.

Ousley's relationship with the justice system is not the only segment of his life that is all too familiar. His father was an alcoholic who rarely paid any attention to his children, his mother and sisters were constantly fighting, he had thoughts of suicide that went completely ignored and he once caught his mother in the midst of an affair.

Criminologists likely could have predicted this crime long before it happened. Researchers have long drawn connections between certain indicators -- sexual abuse, family strife, social isolation, etc. -- and criminal activity.

Moreover, there is no shortage of research detailing the structural differences in the adolescent brain that can lead to such brutal behavior. For instance, Gail Garinger, the child advocate for Massachusets, concludes, "Brain imaging studies reveal that the regions of the adolescent brain responsible for controlling thoughts, actions and emotions are not fully developed."

Still, the U.S. criminal justice system seems uninterested -- far more focused on revenge than solutions. Before Ousley was sentenced, for example, his prosecutor proclaimed that he would "eventually set an example for other juveniles."

That goal is one that defines the ridicule behind American criminal justice. Beside the fact that harsher punishment has never worked as a form of deterrence, we should instead be focusing on rehabilitation and integration. After all, whose interests does it serve for taxpayers to continue paying for people to rot in prison when they could be contributing to our society and economy?

Take Greg. Shortly after entering prison, he pursued a high school education and, later, a bachelor's degree in liberal arts; he also called for a mediation process with his family. Especially at a time when the U.S. economy is under-skilled and undereducated, we should be eager to get people like Greg -- who has served nearly 20 years -- back into the workforce. What do we gain by having an educated man like Greg sit in jail?

Instead, here is how Greg's situation will likely play out: He will be granted parole when he is first eligible and in his early 40s. With his options far more limited than they would be now, he will have severe trouble finding a job. He will likely collect unemployment and further put a drag on the economy -- much like many ex-cons.

One cannot help but ask when looking at our criminal justice system: What exactly is our goal, anyway? Is it to deter crime? No, because the U.S. still has very high crime rates. Is it to rehabilitate? No, because then people like Greg would be long out of prison.

The only logical answer, then, is that we punish to get revenge. A prison sentence in America is more of an "example" than a plan. No one doubts that what Ousley and other murderers did is completely atrocious and worthy of punishment. But he's served 19 years, and to strip all hope from a smart, remorseful person like Greg is nothing more than a shame.