Reduce Recidivism Through Reform

By · Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

As a society, citizens ought to expect our $59 billion prison system to do more than warehouse offenders for the duration of their sentences. When we lock offenders inside abnormal communities for years or decades at a time, we condition them for non productivity. Rather than encouraging redemption, prisons extinguish hope and breed resentment. This has been a pattern that manifests itself with high recidivism rates and high costs.

Those in law enforcement say such expenditures are necessary to keep society…that is a problem administrators could change by simply encouraging more prisoners to adjust in positive ways. Prisoners are human beings, and like all people, they respond better to the promise of incentives than to the threat of punishment. If administrators were to implement mechanisms through which prisoners could work toward meaningful lives, more prisoners would feel a sense of self-empowerment. Without that hope, prisoners feel only the weight of their sentences.

Those without a clear understanding of prisons misunderstand the concept of good time. Administrators do not base good time on positive accomplishments. Rather all prisoners who avoid disciplinary infractions receive good time. That means a prisoner who plays dominoes all day earns the same good time as the individual striving to prepare for a law-abiding life. Thus good time fails as an incentive to motivate positive adjustments. It simply rewards an individual for staying out of trouble, which is something he is supposed to do.

I advocate the types of incentives Justice Burger wrote about in his speech Factories with Fences. Prisoners should earn the right to gradual increases in freedom through merit. As they educate themselves, develop vocational skills, build networks of support, demonstrate that they have a commitment to reconciling with society and live by American values, they ought to earn graduating increases in freedom. Such an approach would not diminish the seriousness of crime, but it would instill offenders with a way out from the poverty of their lives. Rather than simply punishing the offenders for breaking the law, society would condition offenders to emerge from prison as productive citizens. Simultaneously, the negative influences of the prison would lose their corrupting power.

Perhaps society should start such a program with nonviolent offenders. Those burdened with life terms would have higher hurdles to cross, and some may never qualify for the higher level of freedom, though I suspect prison reforms ought to include all prisoners in some way.

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