Let’s have a conversation about how to obtain something that we all want: safety. (Well, okay, if you really want to have a conversation, you’ll have to leave a comment below.)
First, though, I want to talk to you about something simpler. Let’s talk about how we achieve certain other goals, like — oh, I don’t know — let’s choose “losing weight.” Summer is coming on and I know a lot of you — especially, but perhaps not exclusively, a lot of you female types — will be trying to figure out how to fit into the latest bikini fashions.
What you’ll want to do is to go home from work each night, sit down in front of the television, and eat a bag of chips, a full tub of Rocky Road ice cream — two if you realize just how small the marshmallows are — and then maybe a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Don’t forget all the side dishes, including the biscuits with the butter and honey.
Oh, that sounds sooooo good!
What? You don’t think that’s going to work for you? Why not?
Studies? Evidence? Experience? Reality?
Ah, if only we applied these same rigorous standards — requiring empirical evidence — when it comes to making ourselves safe.
Recently, the Fresno Bee carried this op-ed piece — “Second chances everybody’s business” (2015 update: original link disappeared) — by the Jesuit priest who founded and directs Homeboy Industries. The same article ran in the LA Times with the title “Former gang members: A life sentence of joblessness.”
In the Fresno Juvenile Court, where I defend about half my criminal defense clients and rehabilitation is sometimes a primary goal, Judge Gottlieb has been receiving some well-deserved praise for his work with a highly-regarded restorative justice program.
And in Norway, a “cushy prison” demonstrates just about as clearly as one can imagine, that rehabilitation works.
Whenever someone actually tries to rehabilitate people — yes, they are people — who have broken the law, even when they hurt others, we find that rehabilitation works. It doesn’t work for everyone, but then, neither does dieting, eating right, or exercising, when it comes to trimming down.
Here’s another interesting fact: in the long run, rehabilitation is cheaper than building enough prisons to hold all those we don’t rehabilitate. In a world of budget deficits, wouldn’t cheaper be better, given that cheaper also works better?
So let’s get back to that discussion of safety.
We say we want safety. That’s the primary driving force, allegedly, behind things like the Three Strikes laws, longer prison terms, draconian registration procedures for sex offenses, gangs, drug addicts, and just about anything else under the sun these days. But, as I said, the evidence clearly shows that simply imprisoning people does not work. Just do a Google search on increasing prison sentences and recidivism and you’ll find the evidence yourself.
In addition to the completely unfounded and unsupportable belief that longer prison sentences are better, I occasionally hear that the problem is we give too many creature comforts to those in prison. But if you do the Google search suggested above, you’ll not only learn that study after study shows increasing the time in prison does not work, you’ll also learn that “harsh prison conditions increase post-release criminal activity.”
The truth is, we don’t increase prison sentences to make our society safer. Quite the opposite: the increasingly harsh sentences meted out in the United States are driven by victims and their families. The purpose of increasing prison sentences is to assauge their anger and pain. This provides a legal way for them to strike back at those who have hurt them. It is, in that sense, a sublimated act of violence. It has nothing to do with making society safer.
As with losing weight, making society safer is more difficult. It requires a real and sustained effort; a change in lifestyle. As relates to crime and criminals, sadly, it starts with remembering that those who have been hurt the most are the least capable of thinking clearly about how to handle the problem. When someone pisses us off, the first reaction of many of us is to strike out. When someone steals from us, the first reaction is punishment, revenge. When someone kills a loved one, we want the perpetrator to die.
This, frankly, shows that the only real difference between people who kill to get what they want and people who kill people who kill to get what they want is either timing, or the thing which was wanted. (Think about it.)
No, if we really care about making society safer, what we really need is a diet of rehabilitation.