I appreciate Fordham law Prof. John Pfaff’s attempt to separate fact from fiction regarding our prison systems (“Five myths about the U.S. prison system,” May 20). Accurate statistics and facts are hard to come by because of the multiple jurisdictions and practices at all levels of government. The number of recent books and articles about our failing systems shows that we are aware of the problems, worried about the causes and struggling to find solutions.
Pfaff makes passing reference to the challenge to compile accurate statistics, but could have more clearly emphasized that we don’t have a single, unified prison system in the U.S. As he says in his book “Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform”: “Criminal justice is, at best, a set of systems, and at worst it is a swirling mess of somewhat antagonistic agencies. A person’s path from crime to prison to release passes through a sprawling, poorly coordinated web of competing bureaucratic actors, each responding to different incentives put in place by different sets of constituents: city police, county prosecutors, state or county public defenders, state or county judges (who may be elected or appointed), parole boards appointed by the governor, and so on, each operating under laws passed by state legislators elected in local districts, and each usually paying only a portion of the costs they impose.”
Plus, as James Forman says in “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America”: “Our system never treated the failure of prison as a reason not to try more prison.” He’s right. I don’t believe we have more criminally inclined people than any other country, yet the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate on the planet. Our prison systems are not working.
I propose that we put our reform energies into three areas: treatment instead of incarceration for first offenders, particularly juveniles; significant education and mental health treatment for currently incarcerated individuals; and, for felons upon release, effective support for reintegration into the wider community. And, as an added bonus for everybody’s safety, I would add ensuring that the training of prison workers includes the practice of calming volatile situations.
Mental health and addiction treatment are both more effective and cheaper than incarceration.
The longer somebody is incarcerated, particularly juveniles, the greater the likelihood of reoffending. Not only is the isolation and separation from family traumatic, but the offender is ill-prepared to reintegrate into his or her community after long incarceration.
Treatment and education while incarcerated are also proven effective. According to a RAND Corporation report, “Prison inmates who receive general education and vocational training are significantly less likely to return to prison after release and are more likely to find employment than peers who do not receive such opportunities.”
Approximately 95% of state-held felons will eventually be released, most still under the supervision of the state through probation and parole. It is very difficult to find housing or a job if you have been convicted of a felony. It is difficult to remain clean if you return to the same environment that got you into trouble in the first place. There are currently pre-release classes in many prisons, but felons need more sustained preparation for life in the outside world, a world that, for many, is technologically different from when they were incarcerated.
According to a Minnesota Public Radio report, “the average adult felon probation officer [in Minnesota] works with about 100 offenders. The recommended maximum caseload is 60.” Parole officers only have time to provide the required check-ins and checkups, but not sustained mentoring and support.
We need more programs like Emerge’s Re-Entry Services in north Minneapolis for people on parole or probation or All Square, the nonprofit restaurant in south Minneapolis whose “aim is to ensure that people impacted by the criminal justice system have the financial support and social capital necessary for a bright and productive future.” In addition to paying a living wage to justice-impacted persons, All Square offers continued education, coaching and a network of support.
Pfaff ends his article critiquing the money saved by reducing the prison population — not as much as you would think. Saving money would be good, but honoring the humanity of each person and giving them the trust and support they need to succeed is more likely to make us safer and is more important than reducing government spending. Felons are our neighbors, our sons and daughters, our parents. They are us. Let’s help them succeed.
Kathleen Coskran, of Minneapolis, is a retired school principal. She is writing a book with the working title of “A Criminal Education.”