Community Sanctions Make Sense

By · Thursday, March 19th, 2009

When prisoners lack family or community support, where do they go when their sentences conclude? I spoke with Steve today, and this was a question that concerned him. He was completing a 10-year term for a crime related to drugs. Steve did not have a history of violence, and he had never been confined before. He was typical of thousands of prisoners who served time in prison camps.

Steve said that he did not have any family support. He was 35-years-old and he was only a few months away before he would qualify for release to a halfway house. The Second Chance Act made Steve eligible to serve the final year of his sentence in a halfway house, but prison administrators would not grant him more than six months of halfway house placement. The director of the BOP had determined that six months of halfway house time would be sufficient for offenders to re-acclimate themselves to society.

Although I’ve never been released from prison, six months of halfway house does not seem sufficient for someone releasing from prison to acclimate himself. Without community support, offenders would really struggle to gain traction. They would have to forfeit 25 percent of their gross earnings to pay for the costs of their time in the halfway house. With the minimal wages an ex-offender could expect to earn, six months did not seem like enough time to settle in society.

After several years  in prison, a man like Steve would return to society without any of the bare necessities. He would have no clothes, no shelter, and no leads for employment. In many ways, the ex-offender would return to society lost, without a compass to find direction.

Rather than offering less assistance, recidivism rates suggest that those in corrections should offer more assistance to help offenders transition into law-abiding lives upon release. For offenders like Steve, who serve time under the honor system in prison camps, the prudent approach would be for a substantial period of work release. Prison administrators ought to operate more community confinement centers and eliminate these ridiculous prison camps. Prison camps without boundaries do not seem to make sense. If administrators can trust an offender to serve time on his own honor, then he ought to be working in community-based programs, earning the resources that would help him transition into society.

I am in favor of programs that would allow prisoners to earn higher degrees of freedom. They ought to follow policies that encourage all prisoners to govern themselves. Once they have reconciled with society and earned freedom, I am convinced the society would reap greater benefits by releasing the men. It makes no sense, to me, to confine people for the sake of confinement. After a period of time, the massive investment in prisons brings a diminishing return, as high recidivism rates show. As the U.S. Sentencing Commission suggests in its report, an emphasis on alternatives to imprisonment make sense.

I thank John Zacha, a criminal justice student, for inspiring these thoughts.

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One Response to “Community Sanctions Make Sense”

  1. Rob Beasley says:

    Michael, has any one considered these two ideas.

    Idea 1 -Prisons – Should not cost a lot just a reorganization of existing structures. Could be trialled as a proof of concept.

    Have a two tiered prison system. You know , divide and conquer.

    1st tier is prisons of the current structure.

    2nd tier prisons are run on a strict spiritual and self sustaining model. Perhaps with some staff from Church groups.

    To be promoted to a second tier prison, prisoners must commit to practice spiritual studies, show absolute respect for the prison staff and other prisoners and must participate in skills training and production of resources to make their prison as selfsustaining as possible. As well as preparing skills for release.

    Prisoners can migrate to a second tier prison and finish their sentence so long as they meet the criteria of a second tier prison. Failing to meet the standards sees a transfer back to a tier one prison.

    Second tier prisons are staffed by the most qualified staff, creating hopefully a focus on migrating to the better system.

    Idea 2 – Immaturity.

    Have you ever seen the TV show “Supernanny”.

    Human experience is such that we all go through a process of maturity. Think initiation ceremonies to give an ancient perspective.

    By in large, a person stands a better chance of maturing well if they have good guidance from a mature person. Assume that mature here means a person of good character and selfless interest in the well being of others.

    You know the type. Your mother.

    In my opinion, this says the responsibility for the quality of security, safety, respect and maturity in our socities lies with the all the mature – not the immature.

    There are times when mature people must address immature behaviors effectively. When this is done, immature people in the long run, are greatful.

    In the main Police Officers as individuals join policing because they want to make a positive difference. At heart they a good spirited people willing to take on a difficult task on the behalf of their community. They are selected for their maturity and character and under go strong training.

    Perhaps its time to show them respect and faith.

    The Idea – SuperNanny’s Timeout.
    Introduce an immediate detention policy for immature, anti social behaviours.

    Allow police officers to invoke an immediate detention against immature people who in the opinion of at least two officers and some form of evidence, have acted violently, taken drugs or acted anti-socially.

    Apply progressively (and immediate) periods of 1 week, 2 weeks and 4 weeks, doing service at the nearest armed forces base.

    Have social workers work with the offenders to create a profile and recommended steps to remedy the immature persons behavior.

    Allow for an appeal against the Police Officers judgement at the end of the detention. Do not permit Offenders to be dismissed from employment until the third offence (4 weeks).

    The spirit of this approach is take strong positive immediate actions to help young people mature and give them alternate information and contacts to guide then to better long term outcomes. It also aims to elevate the spirit of the police and reduce the load on the legal system.