Removing the Roadblocks to Rehabilitation

There are programs that do rehabilitate offenders.  So why are there not more of them.  Especially applicable in Canada as the debate over Harper’s prison plan heats up.

How can this be, when we profess to be concerned about crime?  As taxpayers, we don’t want to pay the costs of incarceration.  As citizens, we want to be able to live free of crime.  Why, then, the persistence of obvious folly?

The underlying reason is that crime has normally been a highly emotional issue for voters.  Politicians may understand that certain strategies do not leave us safer, yet they do not try to change them for fear of being tarred as soft on criminals.  When crime rates are high and crime is a potent electoral issue, the pressure encourages public officials to appear tough on crime at all costs.  When crime rates are low and voters might be more receptive to more effective approaches, the issue has usually vanished from public attention.

A related reason is that advocates of new strategies rarely have the research that would allow them to make their case.  Especially with an issue like crime, it is important to be able to offer proof to counter the emotion.  But many aspects of why people commit crimes and how to stop them have been little studied. “Research is very expensive to do,” said Peggy McGarry, the director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections for the New York-based Vera Institute. “You have to create a comparison group out of the files of a public agency, create a database, do interviews.  It is getting harder and harder to persuade private funders to spend money on research because the human need is just so great.  And they are not convinced that legislatures and government offices are going to do anything with the results of it anyway.  Why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to evaluate the Castle if you are not convinced that New York State will try to replicate it?”

The good news is that we may have reached a turning point, a chance at last to see effective anti-crime policies edge out ineffective ones.  One reason is the record number of people being released from prison.  This has made prisoner re-entry a hot topic in the field of corrections (if still invisible to the rest of the world).  The politics, too, have changed.  The crime rate throughout the United States has dropped, which means that voters are less panicked about crime and less singleminded about harsh measures.

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