Reader suggestions to reduce recidivism range from education for prisoners to execution for repeat offenders.
On Thursday, I wrote that it would be smart policy for the state to use incarceration as an opportunity to help prisoners become less likely to return to crime when they get out. The Seattle Times has been reporting on errors that allowed thousands of prisoners to be released early, including two now charged with killing people.
Most readers who contacted me agreed, but some didn’t. And the fact is, we aren’t going to get where we need to be until state elected officials are sure voters will reward them for changing the current system.
Tough on crime has always been a safe election line. No one likes crime. And looking tough is easier than explaining the complex process of changing life prospects for people who have committed crimes. When an issue pits the gut against reason, usually the gut wins.
Here’s part of a message from Howard, of Kirkland:
Most Read Local Stories
- UW researchers think a fish might be the answer to treating mood disorders, addiction
- Work gets underway to ease an I-5 bottleneck in downtown Seattle
- Inslee: Washington state to lift COVID restrictions by June 30; right now, mask rules eased for vaccinated people
- Coronavirus daily news updates, May 17: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle, Washington State, and the world
- Voting-rights battle in Washington state raises allegations of diluting Latino votes
“Ok, I agree, educate them so that they have something productive to do when they get out.” But then he asked, “How many chances or offenses do we as a society tolerate before they’re declared habitual criminals and finally executed?” He concluded with this:
“If we execute the worst of the worst, maybe (there’ll) be some funds to educate the ones that can be saved, but we can’t have both.”
Howard said keeping people incarcerated indefinitely is too expensive. I agree, but I don’t think executing people is a wise money-saving strategy. It certainly isn’t a moral one by my reckoning. Preparing people to succeed on the outside without returning to crime would be cheaper than keeping them in prison longer, or continuing the pattern of release, crime, arrest, trial, re-incarceration. That’s monumentally costly.
Another reader, Quincy, said he understood my desire to ease the transition to the outside but said the ex-prisoner is ultimately responsible for his fate. “You don’t want a return trip to jail? THEN DON’T COMMIT CRIMES!”
That feels so right, so simple and clear, and it works, but mostly only for people who’ve never done anything to land them in prison in the first place (or never been caught at it, anyway).
Those who land in prison do so because of some combination of circumstances and deficits that makes it unlikely they could just will themselves to do better. Helping them do better is as much about the rest of us as it is about them. It is about making it less likely they will return to crime and more likely they will be productive citizens. That is both smart and humane.
A Des Moines couple sent me a cartoon that showed a crowd of people marching toward a sign that read, “Answers.” At the sign the road split. A few people took the direction marked “Complex but right.” But most turned toward, “Simple but wrong” and marched over a cliff. The couple favored taking on the challenges involved in improving lives.
Many imprisoned after committing crimes have deficits in education and in both life skills and work skills. Many are affected by substance abuse or mental illness. They often come from communities that offer few opportunities for economic success. People who go to prison typically have pre-prison incomes far below those of the general population.
They would benefit from counseling, education and training in prison and support after release, getting housing and jobs and staying away from aspects of their prior lives that contributed to them committing crimes.
As a state, we don’t do well on that score, even with young people.
Bailey Stober wrote: “As a former staffer for the state in the areas of juvenile justice and rehabilitation I can tell you the frustration is real. The state cut juvenile parole services by 40 percent so you have to have committed a top tier crime in order to get any parole services … yet the kids who strayed only slightly off course get no services for a course correction.”
He said Oregon offers job training and other help. “Think of the tax dollars we could save long term to reinvest in education or other important programs.”
Some inmates are fortunate enough to get help from volunteers and other private groups.
Anne wrote: “I’m a part of a group from Mercer Island Presbyterian Church who take turns going to Clallam Bay Correctional Center once a month to act as Volunteer Sponsors for the Black Prisoner’s Caucus (BPC).
“The BPC is a group that helps prepare prisoners for what they will face on the outside, for instance they have, on their own initiative, started a program of classes for college credit, by enlisting the help of a community college.
“But I’m really writing to comment on the treatment of the prisoners who were released early. It seems totally counterproductive when the authorities rearrest some of those men, the ones who were released only a few weeks or months early AND have gotten jobs, are supporting their families again and have not been in any trouble since their release. It isn’t as if they escaped!
“Their release was not their fault, and they have been productive members of society again. When they are put back in prison, it costs the state money for them, and probably for their families too, who have again lost their provider. So why punish them again, for what was the state’s fault this time?”
And I’d add, that sometimes the urge to punish costs all of us more than a commitment to correction would.