Ombudsman Panels and Prison Reform

By · Friday, March 20th, 2009

The budget crisis, together with a recent judicial decision, may result in the early release of 50,000 prisoners who are held in the overcrowded California state prison system. Who will be responsible for determining which prisoners return to their communities early?

Hugo Sanchez is a criminal justice student who asked my thoughts on who should be in charge of deciding which prisoners receive the benefit of early release. As a long-term prisoner, I am a believer in transparency. I think law-abiding citizens who don’t have any role in operating the prison system, but who have an inherent interest in the people who live in their communities, ought to have a vote in determining which justice has been served. Nordic countries, I have read, make use of an ombudsman panel. The ordinary citizens from neighboring communities comprise those panels. Those who sit on the Nordic Ombudsman panels play a role in helping offenders craft adjustment plans at the start of the offender’s term. The offender is responsible for keeping those on the panel apprised of the progress he makes toward reconciling with society. In time, after the offender meets specific benchmarks that include more than the passage of time, those who sit on the community ombudsman panel have the authority to sponsor the offender’s release.

We do not make use of our citizens in the United States with regard to our prison system. Nor is our system of corrections transparent. Prison administrators take precautionary measures to limit the amount of information that leaks out about prison operations.

I would like to see prison reforms that bring much more transparency to the system of corrections. The public ought to exercise its first amendment rights to demand news as to why an agency that swallows so many billions in taxpayer funds struggles with such high recidivism rates. If the public had access to the manner in which administrative policies extinguish hope, citizens would understand why recidivism is such a problem. Appropriate prison reforms would lower overcrowding, lower recidivism, and lower prison operating budgets.

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