Category Archives: mass incarceration

ReImagining Prisons For Teens and Adults

American prisons hold far too many teens and adults at too great a social and financial cost. Mountains of books and articles have been written about incarceration in America. Right now there is widespread interest in finally getting serious about changes that have long been needed. If polls were the determining factor used by politicians, significant changes would happen soon. But lawmakers are poll-iticians. Instead they reflect long held personal moral, religious or philosophical beliefs that have more to do with staying in office and satisfying funders. Our correctional systems are dominated by a law enforcement mentality that emphasizes retribution, obedience, control and security.

The well known failure of prisons to change behavior is seen in recidivism rates. But then, how could they possibly succeed in providing prisoners with tools for post release success when there is no established vision, or funding, to accomplish that? Fortunately there are an increasing number of individuals inside and outside of prison who have seen the need to move beyond the kind of snail pace change that has been acceptable to date. The problems are diverse and deeply rooted in history. Up to now the immensity of the problem has resulted in only incremental advancements.

Fortunately, the folks at the Vera Institute of Justice are not mired in that old thinking. They have launched the ReImagining Prison Project that has all the hallmarks of a needed revolution in correctional thinking and practice. They not only incorporate a vast array of available knowledge from many parts of America but have been instrumental in establishing a pilot project for emerging youth in a Connecticut prison. This is modeled after prisons in Germany that have been designed on the basic principle of recognizing and promoting human dignity. A very worthwhile read for anyone interested in transformation of the systems we are familiar with.




This teenager grew up in a society that supports the death penalty, all lesser forms of punishment, and places a high value on guns. So it was not surprising that when, at age 17, his lifelong friend was murdered, thoughts of revenge would not leave his immature brain. Months later, during a confrontation with the killer who was out on bail, he yielded to the impulse to hurt back, and shot him. The victim survived, and later, both were sentenced to prison. The murderer got 30 years, and that guy, who failed to get an eye for an eye, got 50 years.

His name is Aaron. Today, 20 years later, he’s still in prison because of a law that requires he “serve” half his time before any consideration for release. Unlike outside the walls, were hard work, dependability and persistence gets rewarded, inside it makes not the slightest bit of difference. There are no incentives for demonstrating personal responsibility…….except for a credit system that was intended to offset the fact that inmates get paid nothing for their work.

All prisoners are eligible to earn credits for good behavior and even more for actively participating in work….it’s called good time/work time credits. Those credits can be used to somewhat shorten the time for parole eligibility. If, you are in prison for a violent offense, however, you can earn those credits but not use them.

Those who study human behavior know that incentives have been proven to have much more positive results than punishment. That knowledge has yet to be incorporated into the prison system… the detriment of prisoners, staff, future victims and every taxpayer whose money subsidizes counter productive policies.

The issues here are many…here are a few:

1: Treating a juvenile like an adult when he has none of the legal rights of adult. Add to that the fact that neurscience has proven that, until the mid twenties, most brains are not fully mature…..a fact that contributes to young people making non-rational decisions. Any parent knows the truth of that finding.

2: The lack of incentives in prison contributes to a lack of hope. Absense of hope is contrary to the stated mission of the prison system that is to “promote positive change in offender behavior”.

3: Extreme sentence for youths, along with mandatory minimums, totally disregard individual differences and their proven potential to change.

4: The primary purpose of incarceration is punishment based…..incapacitation… with the main focus on security and control. Underfunded educational, vocational, substance abuse and mental health programming, guarantees higher recidivism rates. The consequent costs get passed on to future victims and taxpayers.

5: Release from prison needs to be based on more than outdated and “one size fits all” policies put in place by politicians….most of whom have neither experience, or training, in how to create environments that promote scoailly responsible behavior.

We can, and need to, do better.

Overwhelming Majority of Americans Support Reform

There is general agreement that there are too many teenagers and adults in prison. The link to the poll below clearly shows that an overwhelming number of Americans support significant reform to the manycriminal justoice systems. This is in stark contrast to those who have created and perpetuate these systems as the are……lawmakers of all parties. Actually that is somewhat of a simplification since there is a growing number of lawmakers, on both sids of the aisle who see the need for reform. The ad news is that they are not the majority, and thus the pace of reform continues like a snail. Hopefully this new poll will encourage those who continue to believe that “tough on crime” is the way to keep their job that the time has come to change.

When more than 75% of responders support reform, politicians need to listen….a fact that is exactly in line with their role as representatives of the people. This poll re-affirms an earlier poll by Right on Crime a part of the Texas Public Policy Foundation). That poll made it quite clear that a large majority of Texans support alternatives to incarceration. The fidings of both polls prove that a large majority of people want smart on crime to play at least as large a role as tough. There is widespread agreement that punishment has a place but that it should be fair and proportional. When the system in place mandates that a person convicted of a violent offense must servehalf their sentence (mandatory minimum) before parole consideration, that is neither fair nor proportional because each situation is different. Texas has tried the “one size fits all” approach of punishment to fit the crime. The time has come to forget the broad brush and make punishment/treatment fit the individual.

americans support criminal justice reform



Juvenile Reform in Massachusetts

Juvenile Reform in Massachusetts

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?”

Attorney Joshua Dohan believes in the idea of “positive youth development” to help juveniles work toward a brighter future.Courtesy of Joshua Dohan

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.”

Through an educational partnership, the Boston Department of Youth Services invites Boston Public Library authors to connect to youth using books that reflect their lived experiences. Here, Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, authors of “All American Boy,” visit a DYS facility.Courtesy of Department of Youth Services

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.

Read more:

Juveniles Are Not Adults

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.

Published in collaboration with The New Republic.

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.”


Whether juveniles or adults are in prison, they should, at the very least, be exposed to programming that helps them become better people. While this does not fit the “lock’em up and throw away the key” faction, it is the only way that those released from prison can be more successful. It’s not uncommon to hear about parolees getting into trouble after release and going back, two, three and even more times. That however does not prompt re-examination of what is going on inside of prisons that contributes to such failure.

The punishment model has been tried for decades and that we have is over two million people in jails and prisons. The main result is the high cost of incarceration to law abiding tax payers and high recidivism rates. One would think this would lead to an evaluation of prison effectiveness to insure that tax money is being well spent. However, it is quite common for prison systems to continue receiving funding irrespective of their questionable results. This points to a lack of accountability that is not in the public interest and is, in fact dangerous to the public because of the damage caused by new criminal behavior.

Prisons can, and need, to do a better job of preparing inmates for real life. The “Responsible Prison Project” written by five Texas prisoners offers a guide that would do just that. The ideas contained in that document come from the very people impacted by prison life and thus offer a perspective directly from the front lines. Other ideas for how to make prisons more effective can be found in other countries. Many western European countries have a different approach about how to deal with those in prison. One such example can be found in Germany. The Vera Institute recently released a video about the purpose and practice of incarceration and highlighted the German system.  Definitely far from what Americans are familiar with in our system, and worth a look.

Time to Walk the Reform Talk

Time to Walk the Reform Talk

Time to Walk the Reform Talk. If a private business had a product failure rate (recidivism) like TDCJ and its State Jails, owners/investors would demand changes. Unlike a private business, however, TDCJ is publicly funded and funding is not dependent on success or failure. This lack of accountability is both unfair and expensive. It impacts the victims, the offenders, the families of each, and all the taxpayers who subsidize this system that needs a major overhaul.
Right on Crime staffers point to Texas as a leader in criminal justice reform. They advise other states how to examine their systems to make for greater public safety and less cost. Their ideas are both practical and evidence based. They urged Louisiana to create the Justice Re-Investment Task force; Oklahoma to create the Justice Reform Task Force; Utah to create the Justice Re-Investment Initiative. Yet, when it comes to Texas there has been no recent similar proposal in spite of their well known talking point that “prisons are for people we’re afraid of, not the ones we’re mad at.”
Texas has made some advancements in criminal justice reform. There are some programs that do a good job of encouraging inmates to be prepared to re-enter society as productive citizens. All too often, however, there are too many inmates who don’t have access to the rehabilitative programming they need. All the evidence of recidivism points to the need to make system changes that promote better outcomes. At the same time, to expect significant reforms from those who created the problem is wishful thinking. The laws, rules and procedures that direct the system were made by politicians, not people who are educated in the dynamics about how people change. Until human service professionals have at least an equal voice in how to improve the system we’ll be stuck with a punishment based system that ignores individual differences and prevents people from transforming their lives in a positive direction.

Violent Crime Victims Want Fewer, Better, Prisons

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.

Cookie Cutter Justice

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.