“But, you killed somebody…”
Those words effectively shut me down whenever I get involved in discussions about prison reform for violent offenders. Met with that statement, I am stymied and silenced. This happens no matter how practicable my position seems.
Being shut down in that way does not make my argument any less convincing. Instead, it makes it clear that I am not the appropriate person to argue for something in my own self-interest. Nevertheless, I still believe I am highly qualified to speak about what I see as a broken system that could be made more effective and less expensive while not putting society in danger.
Living in prison for the past 30 years has not been easy. While incarcerated, I have witnessed many aspects of the criminal justice system, as well as the deeds of other incarcerated individuals, both good and bad. My perspective comes from the fact that I recognize the destructiveness of what I have done and why I am here.
There is no arguing with the idea that someone who commits a violent crime should be punished or that the punishment should be severe enough to keep the individual away from society for a meaningful period of time and harsh enough that it serves as a deterrent to others. Those are two critical factors that must be met in any criminal justice system. However, if the punishment is too long, it becomes attenuated. The reason behind the severity of the punishment no longer serves any meaningful purpose.
Practically speaking, it makes little sense to incarcerate people until they are well past an age where they can find meaningful employment. At that point, they are little more than a further burden on society. Holding someone for that long defeats the purpose of the punishment as a remedy for criminal behavior. There is a point of diminishing return where the rationale for incarcerating someone ceases to exist and the cost to society begins to escalate at an alarming rate.
According to an April 2020 article by Prison Policy Initiative, people convicted of a violent offense have some of the lowest recidivism rates. That may be difficult to accept, but the reason is obvious considering the lengthy sentences imposed and the changes that come with age.
But as incarcerated individuals become more mature and less violent, they also become more expensive to house. The conditions of confinement lead to all sorts of physical and mental ailments that prisons must deal with at an extraordinary cost.
Simultaneously, due to incarceration, the inmate population is unable to contribute to the tax base, to society, or their own wellbeing. This leads to inmates feeling less responsibility for learning how to care for themselves. Clearly, this is the exact opposite of what should be learned in prison. Teaching inmates how to be self-sufficient should be a priority.
After decades of being told when to eat or shower, being fed and clothed, and receiving free medical care, inmates are released into society with no social skills, no job skills, and the inability to take care of themselves. If they later re-offend, these very same shortcomings become a motivation for lengthier sentences.
Furthermore, if an individual is confined for decades, they are unable to contribute to programs such as Social Security. Released at an old age, they will not have earned enough credits to qualify for that most basic social safety net. The cost to society is then redoubled as that individual is forced to resort to whatever means necessary just to survive, which leads to more crime.
The goal of incarceration, in the end, has to be about more than punishment. There has to be a focus on education and vocational skills as well as therapy and life skills training. These elements will only matter if a person is able to get out of prison in a time frame where they can utilize what they have learned. At some point, punishment has to stop and rehabilitation has to begin. This is the only way society can cease this expensive, inane cycle of recidivism.
While incarcerated, the possibility of release is often the only effective way to motivate rehabilitation and program participation. If an inmate has a life sentence or a term that cannot be reduced, he or she will be less likely to change. If, however, a system was devised so that portions of a long sentence were suspended — not forgiven — as an inmate achieves different goals, society would see a completely different outcome.
Currently, someone with longer than a 30-year sentence has no hope of ever getting out to live a meaningful life. The results of that fate can be seen in the behavior of young, newly confined inmates. They live their lives looking to get high or join gangs because, as “dead men walking,” nothing really matters.
Looking at the possibilities at the other end of the spectrum, it is often the case that victims and families of victims are seeking answers beyond what was determined in a court of law. To help victims heal and get the answers they are seeking and the closure they need, the criminal justice system should look to an approach it has so far ignored: restorative justice.
Restorative justice means getting the victims involved, allowing them to ask questions, say what they have to say, and, if they are so moved, offer absolution to the offender.
Restorative justice was used in Rwanda after the tribal genocide. Families met with the person who inflicted harm on them or their family and, with the help of mediators, were able to begin the process of healing.
In the United States, however, victims are often pushed aside by the will of the state. There is quite a bit left unsaid and unanswered, meaning the pain felt by victims often lingers longer and more powerfully with so much left unresolved.
A program should be created to bring willing victims and perpetrators together in a safe, monitored environment to work towards some type of understanding. This type of program has the potential to help foster more healing than a lifetime of punishment behind bars ever could.
Moreover, society as a whole has a lot to learn from felons. To truly deter crime, there is no better way than to show the public, by example, what it is really like for a human being to be locked away for a significant amount of time. Former inmates have stories to tell and lessons to give about their lives behind bars. Those stories would demonstrate to the youth that crime is not an acceptable plan.
When one considers that the cost of imprisoning a convicted criminal is about the same as sending someone to Princeton University, it makes sense to consider alternatives. This is true even for violent crimes where, after conviction, the condemned will spend decades in prison. After many years during which the violent perpetrator has matured, the propensity for future violence is likely greatly reduced. Furthermore, if the “corrections” aspect of the criminal justice system was leveraged not just to provide but also to promote rehabilitation and counseling, the need for such intensely restrictive environments would be reduced.
Prisons could be more like schools and treatment centers, which would have the effect of reducing the prevalence of recidivism, and hence, crime. This could be done through phases: setting realistic goals for inmates to obtain education, training, and life skills while getting help for substance abuse or mental health issues.
If even moderately successful, the decrease in the rate of recidivism would spare taxpayers well into the hundreds of millions of dollars through fewer arrests, investigations, and trials. More savings would come from fewer prison beds and fewer prisons. Reform is necessary. Reducing the length of sentences and reimagining the purpose of prison is part of the solution.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.