Shrinking Prisons And A Debt Unpaid

The New York Times editorial applauds the incipient “smart on crime” solutions that are starting to undo the damage of decades of “tough on crime” politics.

The mandatory sentencing movement that swept the United States beginning in the 1970s drove the state prison population up from less than 200,000 to about 1.4 million today and made corrections the second-fastest-growing state expense after Medicaid. But bipartisan sentencing reforms in a growing number of states are starting to reverse that trend — causing the prison population to decline by about 3.8 percent since 2009.

It credits empirical analysis as a better means of determining recidivism:

Underlying the state reforms is a relatively new and more sophisticated way of using data about the offender — including criminal history, drug abuse and instances of antisocial behavior — to assess the likelihood of that individual’s committing a new crime. And by examining arrest, sentencing and probation data, the states can revise policies that might be driving people back into prison unnecessarily.

If it makes them feel better to believe such nonsense, so be it.  Neither the perpetual increase in severity of sentencing, nor the start of its lessening in the face of the cost of decades of unproductive penal policy have anything to do with empiricism. 

Sure, there are scholars trying to fit numbers to data, but nobody pays any real attention to them. Nobody ever did. It was always appeals to emotion and empty rhetoric, and that’s all it is now. To the extent a study exists that bolsters whatever the politicians think will serve their purposes, they trot it out.  If a study goes the other way, it’s ignored or discredited. Studies are used to support what people have already decided to do; they don’t direct policy. They are trailing justifications.

But this leaves an open question of what happens after the big policy question is answered: So if we don’t want to lock every person convicted of a crime up for ever and ever because it costs a friggin’ fortune, what happens to them when we cut them loose?

Some states are also embracing what is known as the “justice reinvestment” approach, under which they channel significant sums of money into improved parole or probation services while beefing up the drug treatment and mental health services that many ex-offenders need to stay out of trouble.

Whenever someone comes up with a cool phrase like “justice reinvestment,” it’s a red flag that they’ve locked onto a bad idea. Good ideas don’t need cool names. Good ideas don’t need to be “branded” for sale to the public. 

The government assumption is that the secret to success for convicted criminals is to create the next gen government bureaucracy.  There’s a union president somewhere smiling. It’s not that drug treatment and mental health services aren’t sorely needed, though they are needed for plenty of folks, not just paroled prisoners, and their efficacy is almost invariably overlooked when doling out government funding.

But the government still has a headlock on its own importance in fixing the problem, as if more parole officers asking the same questions of the same parolees four times a month is better than twice a month and make all the problems of recidivism disappear.

Nowhere in the editorial is it mentioned that the back half of the apparatus designed to destroy the lives of people convicted of crimes remains intact.  Sex offender registries for heinous teens who engage in public urination aren’t disappearing. In fact, our love of registries is growing, as localities invent new registries to taint people.

The collateral consequences of a conviction, from immigration to housing to education to employment, make a successful return to society after a vacation on the state’s dime nothing short of a miracle.  While everybody was busy hating on criminals, nobody was advocating for the position that their return to a productive, successful, law-abiding life depended on our willingness to take them back.  Well, maybe a few of us were, but nobody who had the power to do much.

They argued that criminals could not be rehabilitated, and that it was some liberal scheme to suck money out of military spending to waste it on human detritus.  And because the first 100 years in prison wasn’t harsh enough to sate our need for retribution, we had to make sure they could never come anywhere near us if they ever walked out of prison, so they were banned from employment, housing, education and any possibility of a normal life.

While concerns over the cost of the prison-industrial complex have given rise to politicians seizing upon academic studies suggesting that every idea they had over the past few generations was dead-on wrong, there remains no hue and cry to alter the collateral consequences that don’t have a direct government cost.  See what I mean about how nobody really cares about theory, but just where the money flows?

There used to be a notion that a prison sentence was a debt owed to society for violating its laws.  When the sentence was served, the debt was paid. The machinations developed to protect us in perpetuity from criminals have eviscerated this concept; no one ever stops being a criminal once he’s been convicted, and we refuse to take the chance of letting him go anywhere near “good people.” 

While the support systems for released prisoners are needed, they are worthless if a person can’t get a job, can’t find a home, can’t get a chance to rejoin society free of the stigma of crime.  But there’s no money to be had by giving them a chance, so nobody, including the Times, takes notice or thinks its worthy of our concern.  The truth is, after a couple generations of being taught to hate and fear, we refuse to accept that the debt is paid.

The best means of ending the cycle of crime is to give people opportunity.  Until they have a chance to live normal lives, until we end the schemes designed to make their return to society impossible, they will have no options except a return to crime.


25 comments on “Shrinking Prisons And A Debt Unpaid

  1. Mike Paar

    The state of Indiana recently passed legislation to allow for some felony offenders the ability to expunge their records. “Indiana should be the worst place in America to commit a serious crime and the best place, once you’ve done your time, to get a second chance,” the governor said after signing the bill. But it came with concessions to the Prison Industrial Complex, as the revamping of the criminal code now requires offenders to serve 75 percent of their sentences instead of the 50 percent previously required.

  2. Jim Majkowski

    Thank you! I have seen a manicurist’s license (Michigan requires them, truly) denied on the basis of a conviction for mere possession of a controlled substance. Recently a client’s having been hired to a $9 / hr factory job was rescinded (after he purchased uniform shirts and paid for the physical) because he had a history of similar convictions.

    While most politicians are too stupid and too eager to please the viscerally motivated voter (I think they know the smart voter is one they have no hope to persuade to vote for themselves), there actually is a monetary benefit to doing things differently: more tax revenue from employed ex-cons, improved neighborhoods where they (are suffered to) live, and less theft loss as a consequence of some of them refusing simply to starve.

    Perhaps if we argued the (least-heeded) words of The Lord’s Prayer: forgive us as we forgive…

    Sorry to get overwrought (cf your post, “So What”). This is something that infuriates me.

    1. SHG Post author

      Over time, politicians have come up with a thousands ways to make convictions increasingly more painful and return to society impossible. Things like refusing licensure to anyone convicted of a crime is an example. But it fed the wave of fear of criminals and made people appreciate their hard work keeping us safe from the marauders.

      I don’t know if we can ever truly undo the damage inflicted over the past 40 years, but I do know that tweaking around the edges will fail, and then the haters will be able to say “we told you so” when people turn back to crime as there is no other way for them to eat.

      1. Jim Majkowski

        Please. Run for office. Even if you are over qualified. Pete King’s spot could definitely use an upgrade.

  3. JTM

    With regard to post-conviction employment, you may be interested to know that the EEOC has taken the position that criminal background checks can violate Title VII, since they have a disparate impact on minority groups. The courts aren’t buying it, and the EEOC has gotten slammed in some recent decisions, but it shows a growing awareness at the federal level that the system isn’t working for ex-cons.

    1. SHG Post author

      The EEOC hasn’t carried much weight with anyone in a very long time, which is unfortunate in this instance. Then again, it’s made some monumentally asinine decisions (such as prohibiting fat discrimination), so we have to take the good with the bad.

  4. Wheeze The People™

    Have you considered a New Australia-type fresh start program?? It worked out pretty well for those sent down under by the Crown. Maybe we can give our criminals that have paid their debts to society Antarctica or someplace similarly situated?? . . .

  5. AH

    I had just this discussion on the weekend with my husband who was kind enough to advance bail for one of his employees who spent a day and night in custody due to a violation of his parole conditions. He also gave him the day off to recover and, most importantly, didn’t fire him for missing a day of work. The violation, while wrong of course, was entirely understandable; the employee had accidentally missed a court mandated anger-management course because his infant child was having unanticipated major surgery. I was explaining to my husband that the vast majority of employers would not be so kind (being less of a cynic than me, he seems to think what he did was what anyone would do.) In the end it is a mutually beneficial arrangement; my husband gets a hard working and loyal employee who is doing his best to support his family, and his employee gets an stable job with an understanding boss. Unfortunately that level of understanding is not forthcoming for most people with criminal records.

    The problem seems to be this “us vs. them” mentality where everyone who hasn’t made bad choices believes they are so exceptional that they would never make bad choices even if subject to the same circumstances. Which should be recognizable to most people as a total load of crap. Yet somehow, here we are. Why is it that when we create circumstances in which it is impossible for people to succeed and in which they have absolutely nothing to lose, we don’t accept some responsibility when they reoffend?

    1. SHG Post author

      Tell your husband he’s wrong and you’re right. Other employers are neither as concerned nor tolerant as he is. Most, in fact, wouldn’t give a person on parole a job in the first place.

      1. AH

        I feel bad being the one to always burst his bubble. That being said, I think it is important to make him realize the reality of things so he doesn’t think that it’s easy for anyone with a criminal record to get a job. And admittedly he does perform criminal record checks before hiring people, but he had a good feeling about this fellow and so he took a chance that has paid off. Everyone should have the opportunity for a second chance. I do think it is an example of how at a very basic and personal level we can try to put our money where are mouths are, although I recognize that most people don’t have jobs to offer to parolees or anyone else for that matter.

  6. Gritsforbreakfast

    This piece is long on cynicism and short on solutions. It also displays a weird nostalgia for the good old days that never existed when ex-cons were supposedly welcomed back into society with open arms. When was that, exactly? To say that “The best means of ending the cycle of crime is to give people opportunity” is just as much of a cliche as “justice reinvestment.” It’s a nice sound bite, but what does it mean? Cynicism is not a substitute for actual policy proposals. What are yours?

    1. SHG Post author

      Sorry that you see this as cynical, but I don’t. Neither, apparently, did anyone who commented before you. I guess you’ll just to think terrible thoughts about me.

    2. Sgt. Schultz

      I don’t see anything cynical about it either, but that’s not why I’m commenting. You’re “what’s you solution” question is disturbing. I understand that dumb people think there has to be a quick and easy solution to all problems, so when someone is critical of a bad or partial solution, they demand to know the “better” answer. But intelligent people know that just because one solution isn’t right doesn’t mean there has be another solution at hand.

      I guess I just never thought you would make such an absurd demand. I thought you were smarter than that. It’s disappointing to read such an angry and ignorant comment from Grits.

    3. Anon Prawf

      As you’ve now distanced yourself from you initial ad hominem assault against Mr. Greenfield by calling his post cynical, I will move on to your argument that he failed to offer a “solution.” You reveal your progressive bias by demanding a “solution,” as if every societal problem must have a legislative answer.

      Yet, your claim is incorrect. Mr. Greenfield proposes a solution, but not a “magic bullet” of the sort you demand. It has both legislative aspects (the dismantling of legislative collateral consequences imposed on ex-convicts) and a normative aspects (the shift in attitude away from perpetual retribution). You don’t find these satisfying because they don’t comport with your politics and, perhaps more importantly, they don’t honor your legislative efforts.

      The truism that “perfect is the enemy of good” has a corollary, that bad and mediocre are the enemies of good as well. There is rarely a simple solution to complex problems, as Mencken correctly noted, and demanding that a critic have one before being entitled to criticize a mediocre solution is unpersuasive and defensive.

      I hesitate to add to the cacophony about your mental state, but I will note that your comment began as an attack rather than an argument, and your subsequent comments have not helped to improve my view of your inappropriate behavior.

  7. Gritsforbreakfast

    I don’t think terrible thoughts about you, nor am I angry, as per Sgt. Schulz, though I’ll let other judge on “ignorant.” But I do see carping from the sidelines about folks proposing solutions while remaining unwilling to offer your own as cynical. As somebody who works on the front lines pushing legislative solutions on de-incarceration, I admit getting frustrated at naysayers who claim to see no path forward and criticize anyone who takes even tentative steps down the path to reform.

    I don’t think justice reinvestment is a cure-all and in many ways find it too tepid, but it’s better than issuing platitudes about “giving people opportunity” while criticizing any specific suggestions to do so.

    Regarding those who commented before me, you tend to attack anyone who disagrees with you and they mostly don’t come back, or else you ban them, as you did my comments for a while. In that light, it’d be folly to judge others’ opinions based on your own echo chamber.

    1. SHG Post author

      Always the asshole, Scott. So it’s not that I’m cynical at all, but rather that it frustrates you that other people don’t think your work is as brilliant as you do. So this was all baloney to call me a name to cover your fragile ego? What a shock, Scott. You’re just as full of shit now as you’ve always been.

      As for comments here, my problem isn’t with disagreement, but with assholes. And assholes never get that they’re assholes. You, Scott, are an asshole. I’ve had my fill of phonies, liars, self-righteous do-gooders who think they’re entitled to be assholes. I’m sick of it. You are done here.

    1. SHG Post author

      Well, then you should be thrilled for winning the argument. Congratulations. Too bad you’re still an asshole. Go away.

    2. Sgt. Schultz

      You started out name-calling when you accused SHG of being cynical, which you later admit was because of your hurt feelings. You start out insulting him, insulting the readers and commenters here, as if you are the center of the universe. You behave like an asshole and get called an asshole.

      There was no “argument.” You had nothing except your butthurt. You reveal yourself to be a self-serving, antagonistic jerk, and think you’ve somehow come out of this looking good? You really are one sick asshole. Get help. There is something seriously wrong with you, and the only real question is why SHG let your comments post here at all.

      And not to press the point, but if he didn’t allow disagreement, he never would have posted your inane comments. He did. He showed you the courtesy of publishing your idiocy and you responded by being an asshole. The only question for the “echo chamber” is why he has to suffer assholes like you. Grits is dead to me. I have no interest in reading anything written by such an asshole.

  8. John Neff

    The number of persons released from prison has become slightly larger than the number admitted. The NYT wrote an editorial speculating about why this has happened. SGH thought the editorial was hogwash. Does that make him a cynic or a realist? I vote for realist.

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