Has America Abandoned the Concept of Rehabilitation?

New Research Shows A Record Number of “Lifers” in Prisons

It seems that the U.S. has abandoned the concept of rehabilitating criminal offenders. Instead, states are throwing away the book by enacting tough mandatory minimum sentencing laws. To make matters worse, parole boards are apparently reluctant to grant parole even to those who are eligible.

A recent article in The New York Times highlights this situation by noting that there are more prisoners serving life sentences in the U.S. than ever before. There are reportedly 140,610 lifers amongst America’s 2.3 million prison inmates, according to the Sentencing Project, up from 34,000 in 1984.

That’s a 6,664.706 % increase in only 25 years!

The states with the most lifers are California, Alabama, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New York. California’s prison system, the largest in the nation with 170,000 inmates, has 34,164 lifers alone.

It seems that the goal of incarceration in this country is no longer rehabilitation but “lifetime isolation and incapacitation,” according to one person quoted in the article.

Although those who’ve received life terms are generally violent criminals, this is indicative of the way America now deals with all of its offenders. Even non-violent offenders can be hit with “three strikes” sentences that incarcerate them for decades.

There are ways to cope with offenders, particularly those convicted of non-violent and drug-related offenses, that will minimize the negative impact on communities while decreasing the massive expense of locking up everyone. Community supervision is an option that is too often overlooked.

New York State spends $44,000 annually to incarcerate each offender compared to a fraction of that to supervise an offender in the community on probation or parole. The cost is even higher in New York City – a whopping $59,900 to jail an offender for one year.

America Works believes that the best way to break the cycle of recidivism is to prepare ex-offenders for employment, then give them the tools they need to become self-sufficient.

Over the past nine years, we have placed approximately 20,000 ex-offenders in jobs in New York City. When newly released prisoners are referred to us, we provide them with targeted training as well as a resume, appropriate clothing, and car fare, then arrange for job interviews.

In Newark, N.J., where a similar program has been under way for just over 12 months, the recidivism rate for our participants is 2.5%. That’s a small fraction of the state-wide average of 51%, according to the “Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) Final Report” by the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice.

Job placement programs such as this one actually benefit the state, the county, and the city. Moving ex-offenders into employment decreases the burden on expensive state programs such as welfare and food stamps while simultaneously increasing income tax revenues. But it has social benefits that aren’t easily quantified such as keeping families together and providing better nutrition to children – benefits that are easy to believe in.

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