Reflecting on prisons in the United States today, we are faced with an ugly truth. They are simply trying to keep criminals off the streets. The claims of the desire to rehabilitate people, is a nice notion, but it truly has never been the ultimate goal of the prison system. It is possible the intention is there, but the results speak for themselves. Most people can’t say they know much about what actually goes on inside the modern day prison system but those who have ventured inside usually have a dreary story to tell. Anyone who has ever seen Shawshank Redemption will find it easy to imagine the awful experiences of those who reside there, especially the wrongly accused. Some angry tax payers complain that they are not hard enough on the criminals with the modern day amenities and lack of improvement despite the billions of dollars being pumped into them. Still, is taking away all their rights really going to raise the rehabilitation rate?
One thing we must face is the statistical facts. Over 2.3 million criminals million Americans are currently serving time in U.S. prisons and jails, while almost 5 million are serving parole terms according to the Report of the Re-entry Policy Council. This council monitors the re-entry of criminals back into the community and the turn out rate of re-arrest verses success. The same council also reports that according to their findings about 97% of those inmates will be released at some point but 2 out of 3 of those released will be re-arrested within 3 years of their release. According to their findings, although spending of state budgets on these prisons has risen astronomically from 9 billion in 1982 to 60 Billion in 2008, the recidivism rate has not improved. They also found that out of the nearly 3 out of 4 released prisoners have a substance abuse problem yet only 10% of those actually got some kind of formal treatment prior to their release.
If you look at prisons in states such as California, the second biggest in the federal prison system, many of the prisons are seriously over crowded, holding as much as 200% of the designated capacity, have been found to have 75% of their released prisoners returning. You can even find inmates living in places that weren’t made for that purpose, some even in gymnasiums on bunk beds. This leaves little room for any kind of program for rehabilitation because they are being treated like caged animals. This is just the state of California alone. The New York Department of Corrections reports a better statistic of 40% recidivism rate, many of which returned within the first 7-12 months. Despite the facts found in this report, Leonard A. Sipes Jr., the director of public information at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, suggests that the federal research doesn’t reflect actual outcomes as they get their information from the inmates’ rap sheets which often are incomplete. He suggests that the real rate is more like 85% are rearrested and 30% return prison.
Critics point the finger at several things including such facts like how most inmates are released on parole much sooner than the finishing of the term the judge deemed appropriate for their crime, overcrowding and lack of funding restricts rehabilitative programs resulting in lower education and job skill level, and lack of rehabilitation for addictions and mental illness. Tax payers are also frustrated as news reporters go undercover into prisons to give you a glimpse of the real settings these prisoners live in. What they see are the fancy facilities with color televisions in every room, computers, lavish exercise faculties, libraries, schools, visitation facilities and dining areas. These are not the norm, still many tax payers feel these criminals are getting off too easy!
In Missouri they have seen a drop in recidivism rates contrary to the current trend across the U.S. This is because they have embraced a total makeover of their justice system. They formed a Sentencing Advisory Commission which is part of their newly adopted “double barrel” approach according to Michael A. Wolff, judge of the Supreme Court of Missouri and chairman of the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission. This approach, according to Wolff, is a completely different approach than those taken before, boasting a newly formed body, the Sentencing Advisory Commission, which sends the judges suggested sentencing and help in supervising and managing offenders based on ongoing reports done by probation officers. They have proven their effectiveness as the states’ rates of recidivism lowered when they followed the recommendations of this committee. The Commission has developed much more effective supervision strategies that focus on community as well as community-based programs for offenders who are found to be less of a threat.
The second barrel is the Missouri reentry process, a new program which helps the inmates complete a successful re-assimilation into life outside of prison. It provides help to cross over the huge gaps dividing most convicts from a successful transition, such as lack of education, job skills, work situations, health care, and social skills. They have seen a 10% drop in recidivism rates over 12 months compared to convicts who did not participate in the program.
There are many things you can blame the overwhelming lack of rehabilitation of criminals on. However, the fact remains proven that throwing more money at the system is not going to fix it. Like the school systems who have receive increasingly high amounts of tax dollars in hopes of reform, there will be little result if the root of the problem is not addressed. In the beginning these prisons and jails were created simply to get these criminals off the streets. Prisons, in the eyes of most people, should be saved for the worse of criminals and focus on long term incarcerations with less of a focus on release while smaller jails should serve as a rehabilitation jail which would focus on the healthy release of the convict. This way there would be less money on huge prisons that just house criminals for many years with no real programs to rehabilitate them. The smaller jails could offer addiction counseling, mental health services, education and training, and even job placement services.
Missouri, Kansas, Louisiana and Tennessee all had declining recidivism rates and Missouri has their new program to thank. Shy of a total overhaul of current system many believe there is only a slight chance for significant change within a convict and frankly the rates suggest they are correct. Regardless of the feelings on what the problem is, only the facts can tell steer us down the right road, which appears to be reform. Only time will tell whether or not Obama will be able to take on this greatly important feat in his term as President.