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Why can't we reform our criminals?

By Peter and Helen Evans
web posted March 14, 2005

This month at the American Enterprise Institute, David Farabee, a research psychologist at the University of California - Los Angeles and the Director of the Integrated Substance Abuse Program Juvenile Justice Research Group, presented his monograph, "Rethinking Rehabilitation: Why Can't we Reform Our Criminals?"

For those of you who just worry about crime and are not dealing first hand with this issue, here are what might be some surprising statistics:

  • 600,000 criminals are released into society each year.
  • 70 per cent of all criminals are re-arrested within 3 years of their release from prison.

If these statistics are as surprising to you as they were to us, it's because we mostly hear about the huge number of rehabilitation programs there are, how much they cost, their design and intended outcomes, but seldom do we hear about the results these programs produce. Since these programs are continually funded, since we hear about what they are supposed to do, rather than what they do do, the public at large assumes they work. In fact, of the few programs that have shown any detectable positive effect on their participants, the best result was a mere 10 per cent reduction in recidivism. Dr. Farabee suggests we can do better.

In analyzing the problems with these programs a major trend emerges; the shift, over the past 40 years, away from prison as 'punishment' toward prison as 'rehabilitation' or therapy. Punishment implies the responsibility of the offender, while rehabilitation is more suggestive of the offender-as-victim-of-circumstances and, further, it implies that we know what's to be done to 'fix' the problem.

Plainly we do know what the problem is; the offender's anti-social behavior. Equally plainly, analysis of the results of rehabilitation programs indicates that we have only the faintest idea of how to correct the problem.

Rehabilitation programs started in the 1960's. The therapeutic approach to crime is based on three assumptions. First, that the criminal mindset is the result of a single cause, usually a "dysfunctional family." Second, that rehabilitation programs in themselves can create lasting behavioral changes. Finally, the assumption seems to be that recidivism is the result of insufficient exposure to rehab programs. In the current climate of entitlement this is usually expressed as offenders being "denied access" to "rehabilitative opportunities."

Now, that we've told you about the problems with the current system, we hope that the same fate doesn't befall us as did Robert Martinson following the publication of his1974 article entitled, "What Works: Questions and Answers about Prison Reform." Martinson was an adjunct assistant professor at the City College of New York who reported that current rehabilitative efforts had no appreciable effect on recidivism. Well, that started a deluge that rivaled the Great Flood. His opponents, who had a vested interested in maintaining their own programs, accused him of saying "nothing works." In fact, his conclusion was, "we have not yet found satisfactory ways to deal with recidivism." Martinson finally buckled under the distortion and scorn heaped upon him and took his own life.

So, what can be done? Findings over the years have pointed to increased monitoring of released criminals coupled with instant punishment when a violation of parole is noted. A few of the current programs might help, but positive outcomes seem to be dependent on the attitude of the individual offender rather than the content of the program. In other words, the released criminal must take responsibility for his life.

Farabee identifies three factors that have been prominent in cases of successful rehabilitation. 1) "knifing off" from prior lifestyle. 2) closer parole monitoring and social support. 3) an identity shift. The two most effective lifestyle changes seem to be enlistment in the military and marriage. A typical story goes like this. A felon falls in love and gets married. He's no longer hanging around with the old gang because his wife wants him at home or at work. Soon he finds out he's going to be a Dad and finds that he's working extra hours to afford a bigger place for them all to live. Sounds like typical life, but there are all three of the elements of turning a gang-banger into a productive, responsible member of society. Now, we're not saying that all criminals, given the right opportunities and support, will become hard working members of society. If you haven't read what Massad Ayoob, who works with violent criminals all the time, says about them, go here.

No, we can't demand all released criminals go into the military or get married. Nor can we hope to rehabilitate them all. We can, however, demand that programs supported by our tax dollars actually work. Demand results, not intentions. Four decades is long enough to have tested these programs.

Peter and Helen Evans are a husband and wife team -- freelance writers and speakers -- who teach a philosophical approach to conservatism. They are also real estate agents in the Washington, DC area.

 

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