Reformation for Prisons and Juvenile Detention

January 28th, 2007

The topic of prison/corrections in America is a sensitive subject. Perhaps this is the case because the questions and answers (or lack thereof) are so uncomfortable for most Americans to ponder. Juvenile detention/corrections is another sore spot, again this topic is one that most Americans shy away from because it is a very difficult subject to deal with.

The philosophical divide where prison/detention/corrections ideologies and methodologies are concerned seems to be Draconian based versus a quasi idiom steeped in what many might consider extreme munificence. Is the current prison/correctional/detention system in the United States Draconian? Is there a need for reform in the modern system? Those professionals working in the field of corrections will likely challenge and denounce any analysis calling for reformation. It is also likely, that most, if not all corrections/detention practitioners will deny that the current system is Draconian.

Irrespective of opinions for or opposed to prison/corrections/detention reform, the need for serious discussion is long overdue, and it is most definitely timely. Fiscal realities have risen in every state in the Union, some being more severely challenged than others, but today every state faces financial concerns and issues. The great state of Michigan is facing financial challenges never before seen in a region that was once the foundation of extraordinary economic power and potential. Today, Michigan is overwhelmed with the tumultuous cost of housing, feeding and caring for thousands of inmates. The level of heinous, violent crimes being committed by juvenile offenders has reached new highs. The courts are strained and the prison and detention facilities lack the capacity to continue housing the ever burgeoning numbers of newly sentenced and re-sentenced inmates.

Lawmakers have struggled since the founding of this great nation to create laws designed to effectively control criminal behavior. Policymakers have historically enacted policies designed to reflect the wishes of their communities and constituencies regarding retribution and punishment of the criminal element in society. The courts and law enforcement agencies are charged with the insurmountable task of enforcing ever changing laws in the midst of a complex society that is home to many citizens and denizens that do not always subscribe to the laws of the land. In this vast maze of ever changing ideas and opinions, qualms and concerns, the problem continues to grow at an alarming rate. People take sides and dig in relentlessly in the rigidity and righteousness of their position regarding the problem, and yet the problem only grows larger and worse.

Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that many states are finding their cells filled with mental patients. The bio-chemical and/or physical effect of drugs on children born to drug addicted parents has undoubtedly had an impact on the mental health of untold numbers of individuals that have found their way into the prison/corrections/detention system. Notwithstanding the individuals that suffer from drug related mental health conditions (both self imposed and by birth), a significant number of individuals with mental health disorders find their way into the system because there is a lack of mental health facilities to house them. Larger communities are most severely impacted by these phenomena as resources on every level are tremendously strained.

Juvenile crime is another area that gives rise to concern as the cost of addressing this issue continues to rise. Some research suggests that youth crime is in decline, but daily news reports throughout American cities suggest otherwise. The horrific nature of some of the violent crimes perpetrated by juvenile offenders is cause for concern. The trend of sentencing youthful offenders as adults often finds favor with the general public as it assuages fears and gives some modicum of reassurance that violent “animals” are safely locked away. There are in fact some disturbing connotations attached to the belief that the problem is addressed by merely locking away a juvenile offender for the rest of his or her life. The first consideration that must be taken into affect is that rarely are juvenile offenders locked away for life, secondly, what do we encounter when the child that was locked away as an adult returns to society? These and many other questions must be begged when we so callously implement rules and laws we believe will protect us. Perhaps the larger question is what is taking place among our youth that is giving them cause to so readily resort to violence? Is this culture of violence not of concern to the general public health and if so, are we addressing this issue properly?

What is the real problem? Are prisons working? Can privatization work? Is prison a deterrent for society? In the year 2007, is there such a thing as rehabilitation? Can a person that has never been habilitated be rehabilitated? We speak of reform, but what is reform in the context of criminality and incarceration? It is obvious that the current prison/corrections/detention system is costly and by and large ineffective as demonstrated by the outcomes found in recidivism rates and other negative trends. With this in mind we must ask, if it is possible to find meaningful alternatives to prisons? Why are so many ex-offenders unable to positively change their lives? Much of the data suggest that the issue of criminality and subsequent incarceration of offenders is a hopeless cycle that society is doomed to contend with, but is this true? Lastly, there is the question of sentencing, are sentencing laws and guidelines adequate, are they fair, and are they effective… what about the death penalty? All of these questions must be asked and ultimately addressed because the truth is that the current system is not working. The current system does not have positive outcomes, it is not cost effective and it is not sustainable. In any other discipline the failure to achieve any one of the aforementioned objectives (let alone all of them) would be cause for an immediate overhaul of a system.

The fact is that over the years prison/corrections/detention has done little to correct the problem. In fairness to the current system, it was never conceived nor designed to address the problems associated with those who have transgressed against society. The founding principles of incarceration are based on punishment and though modern discussions orbit around concepts of rehabilitation the roots of the system are steadfast. Many (if not most) individuals in society still believe in the principles of “crime and punishment” and therefore are opposed to anything other than seeing that offenders suffer in payment for the wrong they have committed. The states where the populace is particularly supportive of this concept tend to be most guilty of having extraordinarily draconian systems. The question must be begged of these states, when those inmates that have ‘suffered’ under your system are released are they better citizens? Is the actual cost incurred by your citizens (taxpayers) diminished by your current system? What is the cost benefit realized by taxpayers under the current penal system that your state has in place?

Is punishment the desired outcome of a “corrections” system? If in fact punishment is the objective then the question must be begged, who in fact is being punished in modern prison/corrections/detention facilities and systems? If punishment is the objective then it seems that our mentality regarding what we do with those that transgress against society remains somewhat primitive and archaic. Revenge is typically not a good motive for anything and when it is used it is almost never without a terrible cost. The current system seems to be a testament to this undeniable truth. With this in mind it does seem that now is the time to talk in earnest about real reform of our system as related to offenders.

Many will ask, why should we be concerned with reforming the system? The simple answer is because it is the right thing to do. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s the practical thing to do. The current system is in part broken because it was never properly constructed. Times have changed, our understanding of human nature has changed, and hopefully our attitudes and prejudices have changed, perhaps not entirely but to some degree. With all the knowledge we have acquired over the years it is absurd to believe that we cannot put it to good use in such a critical area as this type of reform.

Certainly, those that commit violent crimes must be dealt with in an appropriate manner, it is not suggested that violent criminals be allowed to run free and prey upon law abiding citizens. Obviously there must be methods to separate the pariah of society from everyone else, but the truth is that there are few that are beyond redemption. Each person that commits an offense against his or her community is still a member of that community and as such is responsible to contribute to the community, not to place additional strain on it. Currently, those incarcerated are not contributors to the community… this should be a primary point in any discussion of reform. How does the incarcerated offender contribute back to the community? What are the community’s expectations of this person? What is expected of this person when they return to the community and what can they expect of the community?

America, for all its greatness, has yet to figure out how to correct criminality and criminal mentality. Is it possible to change the criminal mind? Perhaps it is, but maybe it is most important to begin working towards including every member of society in actually participating, this includes those that are currently incarcerated and those at risk of being incarcerated. How do we accomplish this? There are a host of possible answers to this question; perhaps the private sector can assist government in the creation of a reform program that would include components in education, training, and socialization. Of course someone will ask why the private sector would participate in such an endeavor… the answer, because it makes good business sense. Strict business principles identify resources, people are resources or consumers, offenders are resources, thus, they should be considered along with all other members of the collective community.

It is time to make positive change in our communities in order to realize the potential for all citizens. Reform of the current prison/corrections/ detention system(s) will help America fully utilize its most valuable asset…the people.

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