Here’s the deal: Adam and Eve had babies and named them Cain and Abel. One day Cain got mad and killed Abel. Someone immediately went to their local legislator who made a law (even though God had already made that law, there were apparently already church/state issues) stating no one is allowed to kill another. The first law of the people perhaps. From that time on, people have been recognizing offenses committed by others and running to the legislature to fix it. This response worked well right up to the point we created a law to prohibit ripping a tag off of a mattress. Perhaps the original thinking on law-making has run its course.
I am one of the original “arrest them all and let the judge sort them out” kind of policemen; quantity equals quality. There were and are many like-minded citizens who regularly appeal to legislators to craft laws to prohibit this or that and in some cases…. urge them to make penalties for certain crimes more harsh. It’s understandable, but not effective. Here’s some classic examples:
An advocacy group, (drunk driver groups, violence against women groups, animal cruelty groups, anti-drug groups, etc) in an effort to further their cause, determines a need for a new law or mandatory prison sentencing or enhanced penalties for existing crimes and they get it. It’s pretty hard to say no when their hearts are in the right place. This is how we got a mandatory arrest law for domestic violence offenses. This law is a true success story and has probably been the most effective law in my career. Another example is the law that makes a third DUI in ten years a felony, the fourth a more serious felony and the fifth an even more serious felony. The punishments are stacked in each case. The result is over 400 people in the South Dakota State Penitentiary convicted of 3rd, 4th or 5th or more DUIs. The question is – is it working? Can imprisonment cure alcoholism and poor judgement?
Back to my law enforcement roots for a minute. This scenario should be good, right? Lock them up! That will teach them. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. And so on. But after addressing these matters the same way for decades I think we are ready to look for new methods, more effective methods.
There are probably only three types of criminals: The first type are everyday citizens who can be dealt with informally with fines, or probation, or perhaps a short stay in the county jail. They are the type that hate being in the system and try never to go back. The second type needs to be locked up for our safety (preferably forever). There is no chance of rehabilitating them or if there is, the risk of failure outweighs the chance of success. The third type is one that should be and will be released back into society. These guys make up nearly 100% of all prison inmates and is the main reason for me weighing in.
For those of us who think longer is better when it comes to prison time- we might want to think again. It is the same thing as favoring the short-term solution over the long-term solution. The thing we lose sight of during law-making and sentencing is the long term outcome of the criminal justice system. These inmates WILL come back and we WILL have to deal with their issues at that time. I understand for those who will commit serious crimes, prison time would be a deterrent in many cases. I also understand a longer sentence could make a more lasting impression on an inmate under many circumstances. But does 15 years teach a better lesson than ten? Does ten years teach a better lesson than five? Who decides? The interest/advocacy groups and their legislative salesmanship, that’s who.
Now that more inmates serve longer sentences, let’s examine the stress this places on the government’s ability to house and supervise these inmates:
More inmates = more cells = more buildings + more inmates exiting prison = more corrections employees + more parole employees and programs = more expense to the government = more burden to the taxpayer. There is considerable pressure from the expanding inmate population to build more prisons, while there is tremendous pressure not to fund more prisons from the “no new taxes” voters. It creates an unacceptable conflict from which no one really benefits. Already, the funding needed to run a prison and parole system is insufficient.
Currently the South Dakota Dept of Corrections is advertising for corrections officers starting at $12.71 per hour. This is not a living wage nor is it enough to recruit highly qualified employees. It is certainly not an appropriate wage for someone working in a prison environment. But what’s the alternative? Raising taxes or reducing jobs elsewhere? I suspect politicians are hesitant to address this because it is a multifaceted problem, which is dependent on outcomes from the legislative process as well as the political climate. I sympathize with them because to address the corrections issues could be a death-blow to their political careers. The bottom-line is: The voting public wants tough laws and penalties with low financial consequences. And I want my old hairline back.
The solution? We need laws and penalties that appropriately cause justice to be served while keeping in mind the after-custody care and service needed to complete rehabilitation. Both are important but if we had to choose a strategy to better pursue success, we would invest in community re-entry programs. This seldom-attempted concept would provide programming and support to allow people to learn to re-enter society…even if they never knew how to get along in the first place. More can be done. It’s not up to the convict to pull himself up by the boot straps – he’s tried it and failed many times over. It’s up to the system to show him the way, not demand he learn it on his own. But how can we justify coddling someone who is so undeserving? How can we justify the added expense? The old way is not working and it is a very expensive failure. We could and should start by reassigning some of the funding currently used for incarceration to the community re-entry model. If we don’t get a handle on our law-making philosophy, we will experience a systemic failure of all levels of the justice system.
I know, talk is cheap and I haven’t answered the real question – why aren’t we doing this already? Even easing into a wholesale change of the justice and penal system would be a significant undertaking. Meanwhile, we have the education issue, balancing the budget, correcting state employee wages from the past few years of wage freezes, and the list goes on. The state and local governments have many worthy priorities and not all of them can be ranked #1. I just hope corrections will be high on the list in the days and years to come.