Better questions are often more illuminating than answers. In the muddy waters of prison reform, clarity is rarely achieved by simply spouting, “If you do the crime, you do the time,” or “actions have consequences.” There’s nothing wrong with these clichés, but they’re half measures. The real barbed wire to cut through is by asking, “What should be the full function of the prison system?”
If your answer to that question is always, “to make people pay their debt to society,” you’re missing an entire portion of the equation—the part when people get out. Ninety-five percent of those in state prisons will be released from the stone motel at some point to see if they can get along with the other kids in the sand box. Most will fail. The Bureau of Justice Statistics says an estimated 68 percent of prisoners were arrested within three years of release, 79 percent within six years, and a whopping 83 percent within nine. This is the recidivism rate you’re always hearing about.
It's plain to see that it's not in a community’s best interest to keep having to deal with the same problem individuals. In the case of repeat offenders, it not only comes with the financial costs of courts, law enforcement and almost perpetual incarceration. There’s also the costs to those affected by crime and the costs to criminals who otherwise could have been a contributory member of Team Good Guys.
Don’t read in to what I’m not writing. It’s a plain, sobering fact that some offenders are violent, without the possibility of reform, and need to be contained and controlled. Our current prison facilities excel at this. But remember, 95 percent of those in state prisons will get their personal belongings back at some point.
As taxpayers we need to get beyond the “serves ’em right!” reflex and ask, “What is an efficient use of my taxes when it comes to the penal system?" First, if we rely only on penalties and prisons to reduce the crime rate, we will forever be disappointed. The more financially efficient (read: effective) way to deal with “bad hombres” is the current rise in prisoner programming. Teaching prisoners skillsets such as de-escalation techniques, treating them for addiction, encouraging faith-based prison initiatives and fostering inmate-led intervention groups have proven to be successful across the country. Loudoun County, Va. has applied many of these strategies, including an Inmate Workforce Program, and reduced recidivism by 7 percent from 2012–2017.
Now, I realize this kind of stuff may sound a little namby-pamby to some of you. It’s better rhetoric for politicians to talk about how tough they’re going to be on crime rather than how we should teach inmates to try to be nice to one another. But a truly informed politician will include in their speech the necessity for rehabilitation, including the need to address the significant mental health issue in prisons. With an estimated 15–30 percent of the prison population suffering from mental illness, prisons are now America’s largest asylums. If you want to decrease their chances of breaking the law again, thereby harming society, offering services for treatment is a must.
Another issue is incentives. Approximately two-thirds of states have private companies that provide the labor to run and guard prisons. This in itself is not a bad thing, as we should normally defer to private enterprise over a governmental one. But we must ask ourselves, since the prison industry is big business (we’re talking billions of dollars), do those private companies benefit from longer sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes rules, and incarceration for drugs—which accounts for almost 50 percent of prisoners? Only someone who doesn’t know that these companies have lobbyists, and that private prisons are the biggest industry in the prison system, would answer that question with anything other than an indignant yes. Profit should not influence the effectiveness of rehabilitation.
Side note: It’s now common practice for prisoners to be de facto employees of corporations who have agreements with companies that run prisons. There are human rights groups who get bent over what prisoners are paid for the work they do. Silliness! First, any opportunity at a learned skill in prison, not to mention its accompanying productiveness, is to the future benefit of a prisoner. Second, other than the commissary, where are they going to spend it? But, the cheap, controlled labor aspect is a red flag. Companies offer contracts to private prisons for the use of their captive work force. What really should rile my jobs-minded brethren out there is that some companies have allegedly fired their free workers in order to farm it out to the $.17/hour crew in Cell Block D.
And let’s not forget the whole war on drugs issue, which has helped supply 50 percent of today’s current prison population. I’ve addressed this in previous articles, but there is a vacuum of logic in the fact that we demonize certain drugs while celebrating alcohol. Every long-term study shows that alcohol is near the top of the list when it comes to damaging effects. Not to beat a dead crack pipe over rehabilitation, but it’s in our community’s best interest to be aggressive in treating addiction in tandem with legalizing marijuana.
Our interest as individuals in a free society is to properly define justice. Revenge on those who violate the social compact is an understandable response. But the bigger picture includes not just putting criminals behind bars but learning how to best treat them once there and how to influence their behavior upon release. Some are not deserving of more than basic human needs such as food, water, shelter—and I even struggle with that at times. But the overwhelming majority of those who made bad decisions will be allowed to make decisions again within our communities.
Quality questions, quality answers. That’s why the questions we ask of our politicians and law enforcement personnel, as they pertain to crime, should also involve the all-important “what happens next” to those we send to our nation’s prisons.