The Criminal Justice Experts, the Facts, and Societal Realities
By Jeff Freeman, Prisoner
Sampson Correctional Institution (NC)
Statistics do tell the story. Most scholarly people know this. They investigate and do research and spend hundreds of hours looking at documents, reading journals, and conducting interviews to help them understand issues pertinent to their cause. It's what they do as part of their quest to find answers to various issues.
It's also what criminologists and sociologists do when they want to know those things that contribute most to criminal behavior, crime, and recidivism rates, as well as the employability rates of ex-prisoners. They are the experts when it comes to this subject and field of study. They pour over the data, look at the numbers, and put in the difficult work in an attempt to find solutions to difficult problems. It's extremely hard work, to be sure. But it's these folks who put in this work that understand the importance and value of knowing the truths and facts discovered within these statistics and data. And, as a result of this work, they recognize the impact that some of these statistics and data could potentially have on segments of our society, especially those living in impoverished communities that are most vulnerable to crime. They also are made aware of the potential impacts of these data and statistics on cultures: How these statistical results can be used to shape and develop policy, formulate rehabilitation programs within our prisons, and turn local community cultures into thriving and exemplary places where crime and rebellion become things of the past.
Yet, there exists this obvious, perhaps disingenuous, disconnect between what our esteemed academic researchers have discovered and concluded on criminal justice issues — on what works to improve outcomes, what works to reduce recidivism, and what helps to improve employment opportunities — and what actually becomes meaningful information that can be realistically debated by our political representatives and enacted into legislative policy where it can have the greatest impact on those it's geared mostly to affect — the imprisoned, ex-felon, and the socio-economically disadvantaged.
The Core Statistical Facts
As most Americans already know, the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world (World Almanac, 2019). In 2016, the United States had close to 1.5 million people in prisons, in comparison to nearly 314,000 people incarcerated in 1979 (Bureau Of Justice Statistics, 2018). To add perspective, this means that out of every 100 thousand American citizens nearly 700 are incarcerated in either jails or prisons. On the economic side of the incarceration issue, it costs approximately thirty-eight thousand dollars per year to house each prisoner (and this does not include those prisoners who have medical needs that require outside treatments) (Bureau of Statistics, 2018).
To further add to this reality, the average age of America's prison population is steadily increasing, thus enhancing the probability that those costs associated with housing prisoners will continue to climb in the foreseeable future — as a result of more medical treatments, etc. Yet, approximately 95 percent of incarcerated offenders will eventually be released back into society (College for Convicts, 2014). And, sadly, approximately 70 percent of those released from America's prisons will return within three years after their release (providing that they do not participate in self-help, or higher education programs while in prison, i.e., academic or vocational programs) (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018: The Journal of Correctional Education 70(2), August 2019). Staggering statistics, eh? So, what do these statistics and data tell us as a society?
For one thing, they certainly tell us that we have a serious incarceration problem, right? But more than this, I think they tell us that we have a problem with our inability to reckon with a system
that remains broken, with a system entrenched in the belief of retribution instead of rehabilitation, and one that continues to perpetuate outdated views on punishment and rehabilitation — all in the guise of, at least in many instances, unfounded and unsupported principles and morals that adhere at least in many ways, to the notion that we should “lock ‘em up and throw away the key." This view overlooks Biblical stories on redemption and forgiveness (The Prodigal Son, David, Paul, etc.) — many people believe that a system that favors punishment over rehabilitation also believe that the problems of crime and recidivism in this country will eventually go away. In addition, I think these statistics and data tell us, despite our core beliefs, better judgment, and “better selves,” that we continue to be supportive of a corrupt system that is conveniently, nefariously, and opportunistically highlighted by certain politicians in this country. These politicians as a moral "clarion call," during each election cycle, rally support in a cynical, immoral, and self-righteous effort to gain power through our democratic election processes — and it works time and time again despite what we know to be a false and disingenuous narrative, and despite all the data that tell us the hard truths and presents to us a completely different story.
Still, many continue to vote for these same folks, and then they pray that the problems concerning crime in their neighborhoods will somehow get better. Yet, the problems with crime and recidivism in their neighborhoods continue to persist. Even after decades have passed, and even after many lives have become victimized by an ineffective and broken system, the problems
remain; and, in many instances, they get worse. So, you might ask: What can be done to ameliorate the genuine problems within our criminal justice system?
The Experts, The Facts, What Works
To begin with, I think we would be wise to listen to the experts and let the data and statistics become the drivers of our criminal justice system's policies and decisions instead of allowing our politicians to conveniently hijack — and capitalize on — this incredibly serious and expensive moral and cultural problem. Moreover, I think we should go with what we know and what has proven to work in other countries, and in the few institutions and prisons across our country, specifically in state prison systems in New York, Virginia, and Massachusetts. In Virginia, specifically, where educational programs are being instituted in many prisons, recidivism rates are below 25 percent, which is 45 percent below our national average of nearly 70 percent (The Journal of Correctional Education 61(4), December 2010). As well, in other prison institutions in the state of New York, where prisoners earned a two-year degree or higher, they were 60 to 70 percent less likely to recidivate than those who do not complete a program (The Journal of Correctional Education 61 (4), December 2010). Still, we recognize the challenges. We know that to promote and achieve those things we know will work, it will take a lot of work to reprogram our minds and rid ourselves of old ideologies and outdated modes of thinking (concerning criminal justice policies and strategies). We must do this to adopt policies and programs that are data-driven and progressive, policies and programs that are currently incorporated in many other countries where they have been proven to work in curbing recidivism, and therefore making prisoner's lives better in general-and their communities a
much safer place to live.
Take, for example, Germany and the Scandinavian countries — Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, where prisoner rehabilitation and development are emphasized and prioritized
throughout the entire system (See Melissa Montross' book Waiting for an Echo for a more complete picture). In these specific countries, rehabilitation and development are met through a
myriad of educational programs — academic, vocational, and self-help, and prisoners are selected and recommended for these programs based on their abilities, proficiencies, and criminal behaviors. And, to bolster confidence and improve outcomes, most prisoners are placed in an environment where even the prison staff is allowed to play a positive and pivotal role in the prisoner's rehabilitation efforts and process. In some cases, the staff and prisoners are partnered together to work on specific education-oriented projects. Yes. This is true — staff and
prisoners are working together! And, to say the least, I was personally struck — and impressed — by these truly progressive techniques and strategies. In fact, in order to get a thorough
understanding of these countries' criminal justice system's techniques and strategies, I would strongly recommend reading some of these rehabilitation techniques outlined in Melissa
Montross' book titled Waiting for an Echo, which sheds an incredible light on the many failures of our criminal justice and corrections systems nationwide. I was especially taken aback by the way their systems were designed to maximize and reinforce the authenticity and humanity aspects of these prisoners' incarceration experience. I mean, in addition to the change in attitudes and mentalities regarding correctional and rehabilitation programs and approaches, even the staff are engaged and made to feel a part of their rehabilitation process! Incredible, eh?
Indeed, from what I read, there seemed to be no envy from either the staff or prisoners. No contempt, even! Where else does this happen? As well, essentially none of these nations' prisoners were demonized, stigmatized, or ostracized — and nearly all were expected to be released within 15 years (no prisoners were given sentences exceeding 20 years for any criminal offenses), and their systems, ironically, had recidivism rates of less than 20 percent (compared to nearly 70 percent of the U.S. counterpart systems). And the costs associated with the incarceration and rehabilitation of prisoners was significantly lower than those we have here in
America. The initial investment they made in implementing their current rehabilitation and development programs (throughout their correctional systems) has already paid huge dividends in each of their respective countries in that that they share some of the lowest recidivism rates in the entire world. So, in most normal situations, and in real world circumstances, most folks would find the examples from these countries powerful and convincing. Without a single doubt, I find them to be both. Nevertheless, I know there will still be those who subscribe to the notion that doing any of these things will make them appear "soft" on crime, and the criminal, specifically. And sadly, many will continue to believe in the bitter idea that prisoners should not be given an opportunity to receive educational and developmental training at taxpayer expense, that they should be thrown into a system where
idleness and gangs and violence are the premier acts and norms of every single day — (and believe me, this is exactly where most of our correctional systems are at today), that the lives of those who were caught up in the mayhem of inner-city struggles are not worth rescuing, who were caught up in a system of abuse themselves, where drugs and violence were a part of most peoples' everyday lives. But for those who know better, who dare to see the "writing on the wall," and who care to challenge these incredibly complex human and moral problems, it is their
responsibility to push for a system that follows the data and, in doing so, implements changes to promote a more just and effective criminal justice system.
Without a single doubt, we know our criminal justice system is broken and requires repair. We also know the statistics that have been compiled over many years, and outlined here, tell a unique and heartbreaking story about how our system of corrections continues to sell us short by perpetuating outdated and immoral ideologies, methodologies, and beliefs on prisoner rehabilitation and reforms. We know this especially so when we see and read about the tragic stories in our newspapers, on social media platforms, and on the local news, about how our young people are involved in gangs, drugs, and gun violence. Then, too, we further read how former prisoners cannot find employment because of their prior records, how they lack job skills, and how they wind back up in a cycle of crime and subsequently return to prison for their second or third time. We see and know these things. Still, we lament and fight against a system caught up in bitter political debates, a system that conveniently finds itself center-stage each election cycle to appeal to those who continue to support such an antiquated and broken system to gain votes for their campaigns and election bids. Still, we fight.
Beyond this, however, we see, hear, and read about how the corrections systems in other states and countries are trying other things, implementing other ideas and program strategies, and
seeing how their prisoners are becoming better educated, gaining job skills, and becoming better contributing members of their respective societies, and how these prisoners are gaining priceless
foundational knowledge through educational programs, gaining critical-thinking skills, improving their public speaking abilities, making connections with others, and gaining the necessary confidence so that they will be better equipped to confront the challenges they will likely face in the tomorrows to come. Indeed, this is a more refreshing story of the outcomes we can see when we trust the work of the scholars and researchers, rely on the data and statistics — and not the political whims of a few — and develop educational programs based upon these data and empirical studies. These are the things that work to make a difference in reaching positive outcomes. And these are the things that will change our correctional systems, re-form outdated
assumptions, and provide our prisoners and communities with a renewed sense of hope, and a better confidence that will reach way beyond the obstacles and challenges we may see in the
immediate future. Hopefully, we can all tell a different story to our grandkids. And hopefully, too, this story will be shaped by the facts and hard truths we know to be true and lasting. After
all, statistics do tell a story.