Crime, Literacy, & Rehabilitation

April 13, 2011
/ Author: Rick

By now, only those living under rocks are unaware that governments — local, state, and federal — are running out of money. Anyone who has studied history could have predicted this would happen, but studying just about anything in the United States these days is disfavored.

We are, frankly, a nation of idiots. And, for some reason, we’re actually proud of that, which makes the writing of blog articles pointing out these problems even more discouraging for me.

Meanwhile, there are some people, including the Pew Center, writing some reports that really stink.

I say they really stink not just to play off the pun of the Center’s name, but because they show one of the reasons why local and state governments are struggling so much: we’re spending all our money on jails, prisons, or some other form of “punishment.” In the United States, one out of every thirty-two people are under some form of correctional supervision. The Pew Study’s Executive Summary section notes it is one out of every thirty-one.

Either way, that’s a heavy load.

And it’s way more than the number of people who should be in this situation in a nation that prides itself on being “the Land of the Free.”

That argument, however, finds little support from the people who — for the moment, anyway — remain free of the restrictions placed upon the one-in-thirty-one-or-two. As the tired, old mantra goes: “If they can’t do the time, they shouldn’t do the crime.”

The problem is, many of them have less difficulty doing the time than we — those who pay for prisons, jails, the salaries of probation and parole officers, plus the departments and other structures to support them — have to pay.

According to an article from earlier this year,

In California, prisons eat up over 10 percent of the state budget, while the state’s public universities are only 7 percent. And California spends $18,000 more per prisoner than the ten largest states, according to the Governor’s office.

When you consider that education significantly reduces criminal activity, the fact that we spend more on prisons than education should by itself tell us we’re fighting a losing battle.

Or, more accurately, we’re fighting it the wrong way.

In my criminal law practice in central California — my office is located in Fresno, but I handle cases in Kings, Madera and Tulare counties often enough as well — one of the more disturbing things I see is how we handle “rehabilitation.” Frankly, you almost get the idea that judges, prosecutors, and, in particular, probation and the Sheriffs’ Departments are too stupid to understand the meaning of such a long word.

In the so-called Juvenile Justice Center in Fresno, for example, children are routinely treated in such a way that rehabilitation is the last thing you’d ever expect would happen. Despite being in a locked facility identical in many ways to an adult jail, I regularly see children being moved from one “pod” — a smaller locked area within the larger locked facility — to another “pod” in full shackles.

Because, you know, if they “escaped” from, uh, from…well, um…. Well, it might be possible that they could somehow escape from the immediate vicinity and total control of their escort, with only one layer of jail walls between themselves and the fence outside.

Even this — while it may show the moral bankruptcy of the system and the people who guard those in the pods — pales in comparison to how the children are treated inside the pods.

Each pod contains, around its perimeter, an even more confining locked area: the rooms in which the individual children spend a good deal of their time. And within those cells inside the pods, no pencils are permitted. This is “for security reasons,” though I am at a complete loss as to understand how a single child locked inside a small room inside a locked pod inside a locked facility surrounded by a fence is transformed into a security threat by giving him a pencil.

This might seem a small thing, but if you happen to be interested in rehabilitation, it is not. When I work juvenile cases, for example — and I deliberately work a lot of them, because I think, theoretically, at least, there should be a greater chance for rehabilitating them — I try to convince the kids of the need to write.

I’m not talking about “touchy-feely” writing — although I am familiar with evidence, including from my own life, that journaling helps people work through problems and leads to better life choices — but rather, about writing out goals. One of my favorite people, Brian Tracy, writes and talks extensively about the benefits of writing out goals. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that writing your goals not only makes it easier to figure out what they are, but can direct you towards achieving them.

Encouraging writing encourages literacy. And kids with specific goals to improve their lives are probably less likely to be security concerns.

But they need pencils (and paper) to do this.

The detail of my description of life in the pods may be more than necessary to make the point, but it really bugs me. If we wanted to deliberately create systems to make sure that rehabilitation was impossible, we couldn’t do a better job.

According to the website “Begin to Read,”

85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.

More than 60 percent of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate.


The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” Over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level. (Emphasis in the original.)

And it’s not just the Juvenile Justice Center, with its judges and other personnel completely ignorant of human nature in general and juvenile psychology in particular, which contributes to this anti-rehabilitative system. The same newspaper where I originally read about the Pew Center study cited above had this story (2015 update: link was broken) as well. In case the link disappears:

The U.S. Justice Department believes a South Carolina jail is violating inmates’ free speech rights by barring them from any reading material other than the Bible….

[S]ince June 2009, inmates have been allowed to receive any type of religious material as long as it meets certain physical requirements.

That’s pretty much the whole story.

Any prisoner who might want to read something else — a book about setting goals, or How to Do Good After Prison, even — would be shit out of luck. Any prisoner who doesn’t want to read the Bible doesn’t read. Period.

When we know there is a correlation between literacy and crime, how can this possibly be a good thing?

The same soft-hearted brainless people who have helped to create this system, incidentally, usually hate other social programs such as “welfare” and food stamps. They — and I’m not complaining about this attitude — also dislike pregnant pre-teen and teenaged girls. Yet, unsurprisingly, these problems, too, are linked to literacy.

We simply cannot afford to ignore the facts: education — real education and the production of literate citizens — is the one true path to improvement.

If you aren’t interested in the people who will benefit from looking at it this way, consider your wallet.

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