There’s some unidentified psychological mechanism that makes it permissable to treat some fellow humans as less than equal…..and thus undeserving of a wide range of rights and opportunities we all take for granted.
One of these less than equal groups, are those convicted of criminal behavior. Illegal acts have penalties that go along with them, as they should.
For example, if caught speeding, the fine (unless fine is avoided) will depend on how fast, and where, you were driving. You pay the fine……. end of story…..except maybe your insurance company might call! One problem with this response is that it impacts poor people far more than poor people.
On the other hand if you get in a fight with someone and they’re injured, you might (this depends on multiple factors (money, race, geography and connections) go to prison…..that’s a more severe penalty…..loss of liberty.
However, that the loss of freedom is just the beginning of many more penalties. That’s where punishment begins….as an add on to the penalty. Prisoners are required to work, but are not paid….. yet, a visit to the commissary requires money. Prisoners , and their visitors , are deprived of reasonable time, and space, during visitation. They are deprived of many of the tools that would enhance understanding of self and others. A prisoner who wants higher education must get in line, because there are 15,000 people in line and not nearly enough classes…..plus tuition must be paid. Prisoners can only dream about genuienly healthy food and adequate medical/psychological care. All these are largely avoidable.
These are just a few of the areas screaming for change. It seems like folks are beginning to listen to the cries of suffering victims, prisoners, and the families of each. Join with others……..we can do better than this.
We don’t need prisons that function as schools for criminal behavior.
We don’t need to be locking up people who are not a threat to public safety.
We don’t need to have social safety nets that leave kids behind to grow into criminals
We don’t need laws that criminalize private behavior that has no victims.
Yet, we have all those things. Alongside that there is a strong reluctance, on the part of those with authority, to show the leadership required to change things as they are. Every two years elected representatives arrive in Austin and enact new laws, change existing ones, and, not often enough, get rid of laws that don’t need to be on the books.
When these folks look at criminal justice issues, their risk averseness , rises considerably. Instead of following the advise of Sam Houston, (” Do right and risk the consequences) they are content with minor tweaks to a system that has long needed major overhaul. Their’s is no easy job when it comes to dealing with people who break the law. Many of them are trained lawyers and businessmen/women, not human service professionals. They make, and maintain, the rules that govern Texas criminal justice. Without the expertise and experience of assisting dysfunctional individuals to inform their decisions, they rely, far too often, on guidance from their respective political parties, those who fund their campaigns, a select group of “experts” and their concerns about elections.
The success of their decision making can be seen in the evidence. It shows that taxpayers are currently subsidizing a system that locks up too many, for too long, at too great a cost. That cost extends far beyond the tax dollars. It includes the cost to the families left behind when one of them goes to prison. Back in 2007 the cost of new prisons was avoided by bi-partisan reforms that increased the emphasis on substance abuse treatment and community supervision. Partly due to that, Texas has, what some consider to be, a fairly low recidivism rate. However, if you had a business and 25 % of your products were returned as defective…..changes would be required, because that’s where the profit is. The State, however, is not a private business and is thus exempt from the accountability measures that dictate the success or failure of a private business.
So, strictly from a business perspective, our prison system needs changes so that the recidivism rate is greatly diminished. Every return costs taxpayer money. Taxpayers have a right to insist on tax funded systems that are effective and efficient. In terms of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the road to transformation is implied in its mission statement.
“The mission of TDCJ is to provide public safety, promote positive change in offender behavior, re-integrate offenders into society and assist victims of crime.”
What it does not mention, and needs to be included, is promoting programs that narrow down the school to prison pipeline. But that is a subject for another time. What can be done now is to compare how TDCJ operates and see how that fits with the mission statement. Anything that does not support the mission needs changing, or elimination.
Tackling a job this huge cannot be left solely to the folks at the capitol………….that would be like asking the police to investigate themselves. What is needed is the informed input of experts like doctors, pyschiatrists psychologists, ministers, criminal justice experts of all kinds, businessmen, victims and prisoners, past and present, etc.
For years now, the Austin criminal justice think tank, Right on Crime has been advocating, in other states, a process called Justice Re-Investment Initiative. Basically it calls for a top to bottom review of how tax money is spent in the criminal justice system. The objective is to maximize the potential and minimize the cost of current programs. With all the interest in making America great ………let’s put Texas absolutely in the forefront regarding criminal justice reform. Texas has all the resources needed to make this state number one in terms of a common sense, evidence based, transformation of how we deal with lawbreakers.
The Impressive Top-to-Bottom Makeover of the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice System
Juvenile Reform in Massachusetts: Teenagers make mistakes. They sneak out past curfew to drink at a house party, shoplift clothes, graffiti their names in bathroom stalls, talk back to authorities and throw punches in heated moments. Our juvenile justice system views some of these violations as youthful folly; others are deemed criminal offenses. Unjustly, skin color or socioeconomic status might determine how the behavior is categorized. Suburban white youth are tsk-tsked, while urban black children are handcuffed and jailed.
Massachusetts created the nation’s first juvenile correctional system around 1846, and it also led the first reforms by shutting down Dickensian “training schools.” But during the high-crime spike of the 1990s, the punitive model common to most states made a resurgence. However, while laws passed making it easier to try kids as adults, a group of fed-up employees teamed up to reform youth courts, juvenile detention facilities and probation offices from within. While much of the country continues to arrest more than 1.02 million children every year, Massachusetts reduced the number in custody down to a daily average of about 190 youth, or 2,240 admissions annually. These state workers also dramatically slashed the number of children under age 14 placed in secure facilities from roughly 500 to just a handful.
What changed? The state wised up to normal teenage behavior and its institutions’ role in either furthering or freezing maturity. Reformers implemented what they call “positive youth development” as the main priority. Under this philosophy, which draws much of its insight from developmental psychology, the Massachusetts juvenile justice system stopped focusing on the bad things kids shouldn’t do and started promoting positive outcomes. When a child makes a mistake, the state steps in as the de facto parent, teacher, mentor and neighbor. Recognizing that youth need to grasp a sense of their own future in order to avoid a life of crime, college graduation and job placement replace recidivism as measures of success.
“For example, the kid who comes into court for fighting at school will ordinarily be put on probation, where he’s told, ‘Don’t fight, follow all the rules, keep a curfew.’ But if this is an 8th grade boy who’s old enough to be in high school and reading at a 2nd grade level, he’ll never succeed on probation. It’s never enough to order children to behave better. We need to look at their life circumstances and ask, ‘What resources, opportunities, services or supports are they going to need in order to be able to behave better?’ asks Joshua Dohan, head of the state public defenders’ juvenile unit. “As adults, we need to do something kids are not good at, which is taking the long view. What do we need to invest in over the long run so that we can nurture a healthy adult, as opposed to punishing a kid because he missed school one day?”
A little over a decade ago, Dohan, a public defender representing youth in Boston reached out to one of the men in charge of the state’s juvenile detention facilities. Dohan wanted to know if the official (who regularly locked up plenty of teenagers) wanted to join him at an upcoming conference on juvenile defense. “Ignorant” of the role good defense attorneys played in a child’s case, Edward Dolan, then deputy commissioner of Massachusetts’s Department of Youth Services, accepted. In an unexpected turning point, Massachusetts’s entire juvenile justice system started to flip. As the top leadership started collaborating, a punitive model slowly lost out to a restorative one.
For too long, each separate agency in the criminal justice system — from the lawyers in court, to guards in detention facilities, to officers in probation — had been caught up in its own institutional inertia, carrying out policies because that’s how they had always been done. There’d been some dissenting voices, most prominently Ned Loughran, a former priest who had agitated against harsh retribution for juveniles as head of DYS from 1985–1993. But on the whole, the agencies remained trapped within their respective silos. At the conference, focused on the entire juvenile justice system, Dohan and Dolan had their first chance to look outside their own roles, question the underlying rules and realign the system in kids’ best interests.
“Even though I’m in the business, it was the first time I was seeing the world through [the public defenders’] eyes. I put myself in their position, looking from a kid’s perspective and a…mother’s perspective at some of the things we did as an agency. We were like a machine,” Dolan says. “[Juvenile detention] was a pretty troubled agency at the time, overwhelmed and overcrowded. Even for the big leadership in the organization, we didn’t feel good about the way we were doing things. We were looking for a better pathway forward.”
Starting with that one conference where defense attorneys and a juvenile jailor found common ground, the agencies initiated a conversation about their overlapping roles in helping youth. Side by side, they could no longer blame other parts of the system for the dysfunction. From there, a group of bureaucrats started to rewrite the system together, unified under the banner of an approach that made more sense for children.
“Positive youth development” generally defines the field of academics applying insights from neuroscience and knowledge of human development to criminal justice. As practitioners, attorneys and officers usually don’t have time to get an advanced degree in social work, says Dohan. “The people who apply it have taken it on as their task to sort through and operationalize [the research] for youth workers, teachers, lawyers and probation officers to give us guidance about what works and what doesn’t and why.”
At the height of the War on Drugs, policymakers generally split along partisan lines about how to respond to criminal acts by youth. The right wing saw unchangeable “super-predators” who needed to be incarcerated to restore law and order, while leftists saw victims of poverty who needed counseling and therapy, says Dr. Jeffrey Butts, director of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Research & Evaluation Center.
Both of these viewpoints are “incredibly biased in terms of class and race,” adds Butts, best known as one of the field’s founders, because they assume teens from high-crime communities are inherently more criminal than their peers elsewhere. The developmental approach, in contrast, doesn’t take a child’s actions as indicative of their character. Butts’s theory holds that the best way to stop crime is to encourage youth to acquire skills. Unlike the other two models, “the fact that a 17-year-old stole a bike doesn’t mean he’s destined to be an adult criminal,” Butts says.
Positive youth development maintains that five assets enable teens to mature into law-abiding citizens: strong bonds with adults and prosocial peers, a safe home, a healthy lifestyle, opportunities for civic engagement and an effective education and success in the labor market. Possessing these resources will make youth naturally begin to see that belonging to conventional society is more valuable, says Butts, than the short-term advantage one might accrue from committing a crime. If a young person feels connected to his community, “there’s more to lose by being caught stealing someone’s phone than by saving the few hundred dollars to buy a new one,” he adds.
“We have to be at least as good as criminal street gangs. They know exactly how to bring a 10-year-old into a group, how to increase their sense of purpose until they become very loyal,” Butts adds. “We need to be at least that good in attaching young people to our community.”
Positive development takes place at every step of the Massachusetts juvenile justice system — from when a public defender meets a client in lockup to the last appointment with a probation officer. For them, it’s not about creating a “feel-good” system, so much as designing systems that will reduce recidivism and lead to positive outcomes. Unlike most other states, Massachusetts offers a network of highly specialized public defenders for juveniles — a benchmark few under-resourced legal aid societies across the country have met. “What makes juvenile defense such a critical area of specialized practice is that in order to be effective, you need to have all the skills of an effective criminal defense lawyer and all the knowledge of adolescent development,” says Mary Ann Scali, head of the National Juvenile Defender Center. “In places like Massachusetts…, we know that we can provide constitutionally mandated access to counsel and effective counsel all the time.”
In Massachusetts, Dohan built the Committee for Public Counsel Services’s Youth Advocacy Department into a premier league of 36 staff attorneys and over 500 private attorneys who receive regular trainings on juvenile-specific topics. That’s a big feat considering these lawyers sign up for an unforgiving job. “The pay is terrible. Juvenile is the hardest place to make a living because there’s no private clients,” Dohan explains. (Still, you won’t hear him brag about what he’s developed; when NationSwell reached out to profile him for this story, the humble attorney sent back a list of 18 other sources to interview.)
Even when these experienced defense lawyers can’t argue their client’s innocence, the child is still in good hands in the Department of Youth Services, which leverages every connection it has to ensure kids receive the services they need. DYS tries to offer “all those things that you’d want for your own 17-year-old teenager,” says Peter Forbes, DYS commissioner. Indeed, kids seem to grasp the value, because half continue to go back to DYS for services (like tutoring, job training, coaching and counseling) for up to three years after they’re released. Most return for about six months on average, Forbes reports — something that would be unheard of at a jail like New York’s Rikers Island or a prison like San Quentin in California.
And finally, once a child is put on probation, her public defender will argue for a reasonable plan that’s created to advance her best interests. It’s a stark contrast with the old model — “trail ‘em and nail ‘em,” as Dohan calls it. The new system’s main goal is to ensure conditions are achievable. Much of this advocacy centers on education. As Dohan’s seen from experience, an 8th grader reading at a 2nd grade level feels like they’re being “tortured.” Bored, frustrated or humiliated, these students are prone to acting out. To help a child catch up, the lawyers are trained to involve the school system. “It’s not enough not to be expelled. We also get them into a program in which they can succeed,” Dohan describes. Kids won’t march themselves into a principal’s office to request this fix, but their lawyers in Massachusetts will. “Our job is not just to make the kid look good in the courtroom,” he adds. “Our job is to litigate but then put them in a much better position to succeed when the case is over.”
In implementing this program, the Massachusetts reformers, at first, fought an uphill battle to win funding from legislators. “In fairness to legislators, you are asking them to make an investment of the public’s money. They should expect a return on that investment,” Dolan says. They quickly saw a payback, in the form of reduced recidivism, and legislators soon allowed money saved from reduced caseloads to be reinvested into other initiatives. (Where that funding didn’t suffice, agencies turned to nonprofits outside the state system to supplement their work, assistance they still rely on today.) As evidence accrues, it’s getting easier to sell the developmental approach.
Even as this model gains traction, it still presents problems to be solved. Up next? The reformers are trying to confront racial and ethnic discrimination that’s endemic to the system by rigorously studying the data to locate what Dolan calls “unintentional but undeniable” disparities in treatment, offering classes on implicit bias and working with partners outside corrections to generate awareness. If they get it right, there’s much that can be used in correctional systems — both juvenile and adult — nationwide. Dohan, Dolan and Forbes started out with the intention of helping kids see their future; in the process, they’ve defined what’s next for a justice system in sore need of a new direction.
When it comes to dealing with juvenile lawbreakers, there are wide differences of opinion. Every parent knows that teenagers are prone to do stupid things, so the findings of neuro-scientists that teenage brains are not fully developed, is not news. Many people who once were teenagers did things for which they could have been arrested, but they did not get caught. Since every individual is unique, the question is whether there is a way to deal with juveniles that accounts for their immaturity. To date the trend has been to use a “one size fits all” approach based on the notion that this is the only fair and equal way to respond. That approach certainly merits examination. Here is a piece about the issue of deciding when a kid is a kid. Not comprehensive, but it adds to the debate.
Who’s a Kid?
Science — and law enforcement — are rethinking young adults.
Consider three young people: An 18-year old who can vote, but can’t legally buy a beer; a 21-year old who can drink, but is charged extra to rent a car; and a 25-year old who can rent a car at the typical rate, but remains eligible for his parents’ health insurance.
Which one is an adult? All of them? None of them? Some of them? Or does it depend on the individual?
These questions are newly salient in the criminal justice system. Over the past year, several states—including Vermont, Illinois, New York, and Connecticut—have debated laws that would change how the justice system treats offenders in their late teens and early twenties. It remains the case that in 22 states, children of any age—even those under 10—can be prosecuted as adults for certain crimes. “Raise the Age” campaigns across the country are pushing for legal changes in order to treat all offenders under 18 as juveniles. But some advocates and policymakers are citing research to argue 18 is still too young, and that people up to the age of 25 remain less than fully grown up.
Some of the most compelling evidence comes via magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. In 2011, brain researchers Catherine Lebel and Christian Beaulieu published a study of 103 people between the ages of 5 and 32, each of whom received multiple brain scans over the course of six years. The researchers were looking for changes in white brain matter, a material that supports impulse control and many other types of cognitive functioning. The majority of participants in the study, including those as old as 32, experienced increases in white matter connectivity between scans. In some parts of the brain, this connectivity increased by as much as 4 percent between the ages of 20 and 30, compared to as much as a 6 percent change between the ages of 10 and 20. In a separate study of 403 children and adults, the same researchers and a group of collaborators found that the volume of white brain matter peaks around age 37. Altogether, the research suggests that brain maturation continues into one’s twenties and even thirties.
“Everyone has always known that there are behavioral changes throughout the lifespan,” said Lebel, now an assistant professor of radiology at the University of Calgary. “It’s only with new imaging techniques over the last 15 years that we’ve been able to get at some of these more subtle changes.”
Researchers are using the term “post-adolescence” or “extended adolescence” to describe this period of development in one’s twenties and early thirties. Social change is as important as biological change in understanding why some people in this age group are drawn to crime. Individuals who are “disconnected”—neither working nor in school—are more likely to get in trouble with the law. While fewer young women are disconnected today than in previous decades, the opposite is true for young men.
In the 1960s, feminism and the advent of the birth control pill destigmatized premarital sex. Young women began to focus on education and career before motherhood or marriage, and couples were able to delay childrearing. Between 1960 and 2015, the average age at first marriage lept from 20 to 27 for women and 23 to 29 for men. Fewer family responsibilities made it less imperative for young adults to work full time, and with the downsizing of the manufacturing sector, there were also fewer jobs available for young men without a college degree. Today, one in seven Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither working nor enrolled in school. Among young black men, 26 percent fall into that disconnected group.
“Researchers have caught up with what parents have noticed,” said Terrie Moffitt, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. “When my parents finished high school in the 1950s, you immediately got married, had your first child, and went into a job that you had for many years. Now we have the concept of a gradually emerging adulthood.”
Experts used to believe that “adult onset” criminals, or those who get in trouble for the first time in their twenties or older, were more likely than juvenile offenders to come from affluent backgrounds, and to have higher intelligence. New research questions those assumptions. For several decades, Moffitt has been studying a cohort of nearly 1,000 people born in New Zealand in 1972. In a paper published in March, she and a group of coauthors observed that the research subjects who were convicted of a crime for the first time as legal adults—at age 20 or over in New Zealand—had a lot in common with those convicted for the first time as legal juveniles. Both groups were likely to have had challenges such as low-income parents, behavioral problems dating back to childhood, and below-average IQs. Many of the common crimes committed by people in their twenties, such as driving under the influence, seemed related to impulse control problems typically associated with teenagers.
If people in their twenties are a lot like adolescents socially and biologically, should they really be considered full adults under the law? Many advocates who work directly with this population say no. “For many years, the idea of how to achieve public safety with this group was you want to lock them up, protect the community by not having them around,” said Yotam Zeira, director of external affairs for Roca, a Massachusetts organization that provides counseling, education, and job training to 17 to 24-year old male offenders. “The sad reality is that after you lock them up, nothing gets better. Public safety is not really improved. Prosecutors know they are prosecuting, again and again, the same people.”
Zeira, the coauthor of a report on justice alternatives for this age group, sees three possible reforms: reclassifying young adults in their early twenties as juveniles, as is the case in Germany and the Netherlands; providing judges, attorneys, and probation programs more tools within the adult system to treat younger defendants with leniency and rehabilitation; or creating an entirely new young adult justice system “in between” the family and criminal court, with specially trained prosecutors and judges and less of a mandate to incarcerate.
Some progress has already been made. Nationwide, the incarceration rate of 18 to 24-year olds dropped by 28 percent between 2001 and 2013, according to a data analysis from the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Some states want to push even further. In June, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a law that will allow some offenders up to the age of 22 to be referred to family court, where the focus is on rehabilitation, instead of criminal court, where the focus is on punishment.
In other states, the politics have proven more difficult. In February, Illinois state Rep. Laura Fine, a Democrat, introduced two bills that would raise the age of adult criminal responsibility to 21, one just for misdemeanors, and one for both misdemeanors and felonies. According to Fine, prosecutors from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office opposed even the misdemeanor-only plan, and she could not garner significant Republican support. “We weren’t optimistic it was going to go anywhere,” Fine said. “It’s going to be a matter of time and people getting used to the idea and learning more.”
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2007, Connecticut raised the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18, and Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has proposed raising it again, to 21, for all but the most violent felonies. That legislation has not moved forward, but the state is planning a new, separate prison to house 18 to 25-year olds, in order to keep them segregated from supposedly more hardened, career criminals.
A similar compromise took place in New York. Last year, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo supported legislation that would have raised the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 for most crimes. It also would have established specialized courts for young adult defendants and allowed some prisoners as old as 23 to remain in juvenile facilities. Republican legislators, prosecutors, and even some associations of defense attorneys opposed the plan, and it died. Gov. Cuomo later issued an executive order establishing segregated prisons for teenagers convicted as adults.
While politically palatable, young adult prisons may not be all that successful in decreasing reoffending. Research shows that even detention in a juvenile facility is “criminogenic,” meaning it makes it more likely that a person will reoffend, compared to a juvenile who committed a similar crime, but was not incarcerated.
Beyond politics, one of the challenges of asserting that 18 to 25-year olds are not full adults is that science shows some people in this age group are much more mature than others, with more static brains. “You can’t look at a brain scan from someone you don’t know and say that person is 18,” said Lebel, the brain researcher. “You can pick out any age, whether it’s 5 or 30, and you see people are distributed over a wide range.”
Moffitt, the psychologist, agrees that the policy implications of the new research are far from clear. “In our justice system, it has to be the same rule for everyone for it to be just and fair,” she said. “There will always be the sort of very serious, early onset kind of offenders that… will have a crime career as a lifestyle.” There is also a “larger group of young people who are milling around, being young, getting in trouble, annoying everyone. But young people have always done that. You don’t want them to get a criminal record that prevents them from getting a job.”
The problem, Moffitt added, is that “as long as you make a cut point based on age, you are treating both groups the same.”
Many prisons contain teenagers sentenced as adults, adults as first time offenders, and then repeat prisoners. The long popular response to criminal behavior is to lock’em up and get’em off the streets. While more than 95% will return to the community on release, not much attention has been paid to how to adequately prepare them for life in the free world. The emphasis, instead, has been on warehousing millions of people in jails and prisons. The notion that keeping people in cages will change their behavior has been proven to be wrong, many times over. The focus remains on doing the same thing, over and over, and not demanding better results. In recent years, more and more politicians are expressing an interest in reform. Yet that interest usually is focused on sentencing guidelines for low level, non-violent criminals. Rarely is there a focus on how to upgrade prison operations to insure that those being released are prepared. That is beginning to change as more an more former inmates, families and victims of those incarcerated, and politicians become reform advocates.
The motivation by this disparate group of citizens ranges from concerns about cost and effectiveness to fundamental moral questions about forgiveness, mercy and second chances. It matters not the reasons for reform, it’s the details that make all the differences. It has long been known that education makes a difference. In Texas a variety of educational opportunities are available. These are either through the Windham School District, created specifically for prisoners, or local community colleges. There is a catch however…..many courses cost money. Unless a inmate has friends or family who send them money, too many education options are financially out of reach. If inmates got paid for their labor, they could pay for the course themselves. However, that has never happened and forces inmates to be dependent on others for their growth and development.
High school, college, and technical schools can all provide valuable, and much needed, assistance to prisoners. But that type of education, alone, is not sufficient to help those behind bars discover new ways to handle their thoughts, emotions, impulses and actions. Such growth is stimulated by involvement with other people and programs focused on critical thinking, emotional clarity, and accepting responsibility. The attached article provides information on one such program currently operating in some California prisons.
Prisons have a huge amount of human resources that are being under-utilized and wasted. There are much better ways to channel all the available energy inside prison walls. All it takes is the will and commitment to follow through. And, of course the ability to think outside the box and consider long term, as well as, short term goals.
The results of a just released survey of victims of violent crimes reveals that the majority want to see fewer, and better prisons. This fits with earlier research that shows that, even in Texas, citizens want less of an emphasis on prisons and long sentences. Instead, these victims want a far greater emphasis on rehabilitation. The system in place, designed and operated by folks with an over emphasis on partisan politics, re-election prospects, and custody and control, is overly expensive and often does more harm than good.
Prison is a big business. Yet, unlike a private business, it does not need to demonstrate consistently better performance to receive ongoing funding. Compared to many other states, Texas claims to have a recidivism rate of 25%. If you had a private business and 25% of your products were returned as defective, something would have to change. TDCJ, on the other hand, has not substantively changed despite a similar failure rate. Sure, each session politicians are presented with proposals for change, and each session they manage to do little tweaks to a system that needs major overhaul.
Since it is clear that the structural changes needed will not come from legislators, the citizens themselves need to exert more pressure on the politicians.
Back in 2014, Right on Crime published a survey that revealed the same voter opinions. Even though the public favors more emphasis on helping those convicted of criminal behavior, the lawmakers are far behind in translating those opinions into public policy. Staff members of Right on Crime regularly promote the idea that “Prisons are for people we’re afraid of, not the ones we’re mad at”. Yet, that common sense idea has yet to be translated into action in Texas.
With Texas State agencies now instructed to cut spending, now is a perfect time to figure out who no longer needs to be in prison, get them out, close some prisons, and re-design the remaining ones to more effectively meet the stated objectives of reforming prisoner behavior. It’s a win-win for everyone. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/08/05/even-violent-crime-victims-say-our-prisons-are-making-crime-worse/
Tough on crime politicians created mandatory minimums with the objective of improving public safety. The result was a huge expansion of the tax supported prison population without a significant decrease in crime rates. Another consequence was that judges were handcuffed and stripped of their responsibility to render appropriate judgements that fit the circumstances of each case. Instead, those caught breaking the law, were dealt with as labels instead of according to their unique needs and abilities. While this fits nicely with the notion that “punishment should fit the crime”, this very idea is what needs close examination. This is the approach has been the foundation of criminal sentencing for more than 20 years. It has filled our prisons, both State and Federal with millions of people, for too long, at too great a cost, and with minimal benefit to public safety.
Everyone I know agrees with the conservative talking point….”prisons are for people we’re afraid of, not the ones we’re mad at”. This common sense idea does not fit at all with the practice of mandatory minimums that demands specific sentences for specific crimes. To implement that conservative notion it makes sense to move forward to the old idea of indeterminate sentencing…..where a judge bases sentencing on the individual nature of each case, instead of a one size fits all recipe. But that is just the beginning of “serving time”. If the prison experience is based largely on security, as opposed to character transformation, far too many parolees will fail, and too many new victims will be created.
One view of how to most effectively change the system in place is for politicians to place responsibility for needed change in the hands of human service professionals. These are the people who understand best how to encourage individuals to become responsible productive members of society. These are the people who understand how to address the real needs of dysfunctional people and how to create real pathways to personal growth. When it comes down to it, politicians have a real conflict of interest when creating laws and implementing legislation that impacts those who break the law. Far too often they are basing proposals on partisan ideology and public opinion polling, rather than science and professional knowledge.
We can, and need to do better at dealing with people in trouble with the law. Some laws need to be re-examined, responses to law breaking needs upgrading, and the entire criminal justice system needs a major overhaul, not just the politically popular approach of nibbling at the edges.