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February 7, 2018

Two notable and timely commentaries on prison reform

A couple of columns about prison reform caught my attention today. Here are headlines, links and excerpts:

From The Advocate, authored by Mark Holden and Brooke Rollins, "Ways to help failing prison system":

We are proud to be part of a new initiative, Safe Streets and Second Chances, which will work to combine policy reforms and evidence-based re-entry programs that will measure success not by incarceration rates but by whether former inmates are rehabilitated and capable of redemption.  Researchers will initially examine four states — Louisiana, Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas — and work to prepare people for re-entry beginning on day one of their prison sentence, and have an individualized plan in place within two months of incarceration.

The numbers indicate the scope of the challenge.  More than three out of four former inmates return to prison within five years of release, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  That is a moral crime and a fiscal disaster.  And, worst of all, it is an unforgivable waste of human potential.  Nationally, more than 600,000 former inmates re-enter society every year. More than 100,000 of those are in our four targeted states.

Safe Streets and Second Chances will work with states to institute substance abuse and psychiatric counseling for individuals with mental illnesses or drug addictions; educational and literacy programs; vocational programs that teach usable job skills, and mentoring capabilities.  Such programs should involve faith leaders and public-private partnerships, so the comparative advantages of these sectors can be brought to bear on the rehabilitation and redemption of individuals.  Emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation is costly — $80 billion a year for incarceration at last count, and an even higher cost in the diminution of the human spirit.

The system traps individuals in a soul-crushing cycle of poverty and prison, while doing next to nothing to make our streets safer.  Proposals to address these challenges are not pie-in-sky do-gooderism.  They are a clear-eyed assessment based on evidence and experience.  In 2007, Texas projected it would need 17,000 new prison beds over the next five years.  After implementing these and many other reforms, including expanded drug courts and mental health programs, crime dropped 31 percent — to levels not seen since the 1960s.  Texas closed four prisons with plans to close four more, and saved $3 billion in the process.

South Carolina enacted similar reforms and cut its prison population by 14 percent, closed six prisons and saved $491 million . Other states have seen the results and are instituting programs focusing on education and training that are showing success in rehabilitating individuals and reducing recidivism.  If three out of four patients were dying in our hospitals, or three out of four combat soldiers were ill-prepared to face the enemy, we’d do something about it. I n a hurry.

Three out of four people in jail today will probably be back there if we don’t do something about it. In a hurry.

From USA Today, authored by Francis Cullen and Erik Luna, "Evaluate corrections officials not just on the state of prisons, but on rate of recidivism":

Nearly 9 in 10 Americans agree it is important to try to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes and are in the correctional system.  The public also demonstrates high support for formal “rehabilitation ceremonies” that would restore full citizenship to offenders who completed treatment programs, apologized and stayed crime-free for several years. A growing readiness exists to reinvent corrections.  Bold thinking and experimentation are needed. And that experimental approach could appeal to criminal justice reformers and hard-line supporters of harsher sentencing alike.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has touted a return to "law and order" crackdowns, is right to be concerned about "a vicious cycle of crime, poverty and more crime."  But activists who believe in rehabilitation also support "smarter policies based on sound research."

So, how can prisons be improved? Here are three general ideas:

► Corrections officials should be evaluated more diligently not just on their ability to manage institutions but also to reform the inmates who are in them, and that must include inmates who have re-entered society and recidivated.  There's an expectation that wardens will maintain peace within their prisons.  They are held responsible if, for example, a riot breaks out.  Some aspects of police reform occurred because, among other things, law enforcement leadership was made responsible not only for solving cases but also for reducing crime.  Officials must be held equally responsible for recidivism rates.

► Prisons must be regarded as behavioral-change institutions, not warehouses for wrongdoers.  Being nasty to offenders by, for instance, exposing them to harsh prison conditions risks making them more criminal.  Prisons must be therapeutic and focus on rehabilitation.  This does not mean going easy on offenders, but instead insisting that they learn pro-social values and how to act responsibly.  Rehabilitative interventions require inmates to engage in the difficult work of changing their thinking and behavior.

► Corrections must become a true science.  If medical standards were applied, many correctional practices and programs would be seen as quackery worthy of malpractice lawsuits.  Evidence suggests that a therapeutic or human-service approach to corrections is most likely to reduce recidivism by helping offenders acquire the cognitive abilities, problem-solving and coping skills, and human capital needed to overcome the deficits that place them at risk of criminal conduct in the first place.  Sustained research is required — as is done in medicine — to give correctional workers more and better tools for inmate rehabilitation.

February 7, 2018 at 05:51 PM | Permalink

Comments

"Three out of four people in jail today will probably be back there if we don’t do something about it. In a hurry."

How about not letting them out?

Posted by: David Behar | Feb 8, 2018 9:25:45 AM

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