Crime, Punishment, And Re-entry

I think one of the things that grounds me ideologically is the fact that I don’t like the easy answer.  This primarily because many of the challenges that face us today aren’t simple enough to necessarily be adequately addressed by some ten word bumper sticker slogan.  Building a wall isn’t going to stop illegal immigration, blowing up the bad guys isn’t going to end terrorism, and more prisons, harsher penalties, and stricter law enforcement is not necessarily going to reduce crime.

Regardless of the subject, there are always more questions that can be asked.  Even one of the most basic assumptions of life, such as two plus two equals four, can be pared down until what seems like such a straightforward and simple answer becomes hazy and less reliable.  Likewise, seemingly simple solutions that should produce obvious results often times disappoint.

Let’s take crime, for instance.  The simple answer is, if crime goes up you enact harsher punishments, and you fortify law enforcement.  You engage in a massive “crack down” and that will clean everything up, but the situation is much more complicated than that.  There’s now the logistical situation with imprisoning a larger population, and there are factors that contribute to crime such as economic factors, social mobility of a region, and community outreach to name a few that go unaddressed.  What about education?  Are the educational needs of a community being met in such a manner that the end users of that education are capable of building a life with the tools provided them from their schooling?  This brings up the question of new members of a community.

Our penal system, primarily, is supposed to serve as punishment, but it is also supposed to serve as a deterrent as well, but one must ask if it is effective in that regard.  That’s to say, sure, you took one criminal off of the street, but for a new entrant into the community, an adolescent coming of age, or someone who is moving into the community, are the risks and repercussions of committing a crime greater than the possible benefits that that crime could provide?

That is ultimately the situation that must be looked upon when we determine if our penal system provides an adequate deterrent, and ultimately I think the answer can never be sufficiently in the positive due to the fact that our penal system also rightly must adhere to a uniform code of fairness.  What low level dope dealer is going to fear getting caught and thrown into prison when the alternative is going hungry, or worse, pissing off a dope dealer that’s higher up on the food chain?

I don’t touch upon these questions and ideas to lay out a definitive argument except perhaps to provide a rough sketch that it would be unrealistic to approach our penal system from a purely punitive standpoint because we couldn’t possibly meet those standards without significantly changing the make up of our society to something far outside the boundaries of our most cherished principles.  Beyond this very basic observation, my intent here is to set the stage for the idea that as a society we would be better served by a system that did not focus on the futile aspects of a purely punitive principle, but instead upon one that is geared more towards rehabilitation.

The reason I bring this up is because of this article courtesy NYT that shows us at least taking a step in the right direction.  The move marks a significant change in the attitude towards our prison system as Bush is set to sign into law the Second Chance Act which enjoyed broad bi-partisan support in Congress.  The act would re-engineer our prison system towards rehabilitation and hopefully provide inmates re-entering society with more tools such as education and employment opportunities.

It’s a necessary change for good reason.

Anthony C. Thompson outlines in a lengthy document many of the reasons why, focusing primarily on the difficulties of re-entry itself.

The distance between a prison and an ex-offender’s home community generally can be traversed by bus. But this conventional form of transportation masks the real distance the ex-offender must travel from incarceration to a successful reintegration into her community. Indeed, in many ways, the space that she must cross is more akin to what one [*PG256]imagines takes place in time travel. The ex-offender, of course, remains the one constant throughout the trip across time. She possesses the personal strengths and weaknesses that she has always had. But because time has effectively stood still for her, she has no real frame of reference for the changes she will encounter. Armed with little more than her own instincts and innate abilities, she is thrust instantaneously into a world that is at once foreign and intimidating in its differences and complexities. Her home community barely resembles that which she left behind. Yet, more than physical changes await her. The community that she enters has undergone significant economic, technological, and social changes that perhaps its insider now takes for granted, but that will be all too apparent to our time traveler—the outsider. The insider will be familiar with the norms of conduct, the formal and informal structures that exist in this environment, and the relationships that govern how residents interact and thrive. The outsider will not know the rules. And yet, we will expect the ex-offender—the quintessential stranger in a strange land—to enter this dramatically different environment and simply fit in without information, without significant support, and without meaningful preparation. If she does not manage to succeed on her own, she must then face the ultimate consequence—a return to her own time, a return to prison.

This is only the beginning, and we see there are a plethora of problems facing ex-offenders returning to their communities from lacking education to having to carve out a living with the black mark of prison time as well as a suffering economic conditions likely standing in the way.

Ultimately, as Thompson adeptly makes clear, our justice system is one that is all too often rigged towards putting people who have served their time back in prison.  From some, there is likely to be little empathy; the rationale being that these people screwed up and should pay the price.

But there are two arguments that run antithetical to that frame of mind.  The first is that these people have paid their debt to society.  The other, and more important in my opinion, is that it is fundamentally better for our society if our prisons produce ex-offenders that are well equipped to have a positive impact on our society, not a negative or net neutral one.

Think of it this way, there are three general outputs from a prison (there are, obviously, more than that, but for the sake of making this argument brief, or at least not longer than it already is, we’re going to limit it to three).  These are by no means scientifically drawn categories, but more a characterization of the choice of output that faces the public at large.

  • Inmates who come from prison that actually preferred prison life.  I’m not sure how significant a number of these people there are, but I think this sort of stereotype of an ex-con is one of the reason people make calls for harsher prison time.  In general, this is the guy who goes to prison and gets out and brags about the three squares a day, cable tv, etc.  This is more likely than not an apocryphal category, but the categories that I’m addressing are more perceived than real for the purpose of addressing the perceived choices that are set before us as a society.  So, from the perception standpoint, this first group are essentially those ex-cons that create an image of prison that does not act as a deterrent to others committing crime.
  • Inmates who leave prison with no positive real world skills or education.  Remember, a prisoner comes out of prison the way he or she goes into it.  There might have been an atoning of sins, and a deep desire to do better on his or her second try, but what is going to most likely be the case is the fact that they are going to have the same skill set, and they are going to go back to the same community likely with the same problems if not worse problems as it had when he or she left it.  Thus, even the best intentions are likely to produce an environment where the ex-offender feels it is necessary to again take the risk of committing more crimes.
  • Inmates who leave prison with a satisfactory knowledge of society as it exists in the present, along with a usable skill set in the work force, and with a set game plan on how to create a decent and law-abiding life.

In the case of the first two types of inmates, they get out of prison, they commit more crime, and they go right back in prison.  The crime level in their community doesn’t get better, and the tax payer not only has to contend with the crime rate, but also with having to pay for a bloated prison population.  In the case of the latter category of ex-offender, the kind that bills like this Second Chance Act would seek to create, prison population should go down which would lighten the load on the tax payer, and these better equipped ex-cons would likely have a much more positive impact on their community that could help the local economy, and affect local culture to help reduce crime at an almost kitchen table level.

It doesn’t have to be easy, prison can and should still be a punishment, but it can and should also be a punishment that produces people that are ultimately better for the experience because our society will be better for the experience.

I’ll leave you with one last thing to think about.  Whenever someone is discharged, be it honorably or not, from the military, they must go through a transitional class that helps give them the tools to shift from military life to civilian life.  This includes such things as learning how to wear suits, go to interviews, write resumes as well as how to manage your money and use your military benefits.  Now, this is leaving the service, and trust me, just serving in the military is in and of itself a huge benefit when entering non-institutionalized life. 

We provide this service to people entering civilian life typically with a great advantage, doesn’t it make sense that we do the same or more for people that are entering civilian life at a great disadvantage? 

h/t memeorandum

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