The unpleasant reality of crime and rehabilitation

I was struck by the determined, almost wilfully blind optimism in an article titled ‘Making prison work, once and for all‘.  It refers to the situation in the UK, but it’s equally applicable here in the USA.  Here’s an excerpt.

The prison population of England and Wales is 85,641, compared to 44,246 in 1993. Reoffending rates are 25.4 per cent. And according to the National Audit Office, reoffending costs us the equivalent of staging another Olympic Games every year.

So what can we do about it? Well, to quote another famous saying from 1990s politics: education, education, education. 2016 has got to be the year we talk seriously about skills development for high-risk populations, in prisons and after prison.

. . .

Prisoners are some of society’s most marginalised and vulnerable people, and many were let down by the education system as children. Obviously, there are dangerous criminals who belong behind bars, but there are others who, with the right rehabilitation and support, could go on to make a positive contribution to society. Making sure they have the skills to work rather than revert to crime is at the core of that.

Unfortunately some of the public prefers the “lock ’em up; throw away the key” mentality. After reports that Gove was considering bringing tablets into prisons – which the Ministry of Justice is looking into, but not confirmed – a newspaper letter writer commented that they’d only recently been able to afford an iPad. “I have never committed a crime,” they wrote. “Perhaps that is where I have gone wrong”.

There’s more at the link.

The trouble is, this analysis is altogether too facile.  It’s not just that there are some “dangerous criminals who belong behind bars”;  it’s that so many criminals have no intention of reforming.  It’s too easy to make a living by stealing, dealing drugs, pimping, and so on.  I wrote about this in my memoir of prison chaplaincy.  The recidivism rate among US convicts is approximately 70% over five years – in other words, more than two-thirds of former prisoners will re-offend within five years of being released from incarceration.  Some of that is certainly due to those concerned being unable to find a job and/or support themselves, but a lot of it is simply because they want to continue in their criminal lifestyle.  They enjoy it.  They find ‘honest living’ boring and unfulfilling.  I suppose it’s a bit like a top racing driver who suddenly finds himself retired and unable to drive on public roads as he did in the past on race tracks.  He’d be bored stiff.

I’m afraid no amount of education or opportunity in the incarceration phase of the criminal justice system can compensate for that reality.



  1. Being in a small town, where we know who our offenders are, and working with law enforcement, where the phrase "it's not what you know, it's what you can prove" is proven right more often than not, I'm gonna say that in my experience, it's not so much that they'll offend again within five years, as they'll get caught offending again within five years.

    I deal with entirely too many calls that go something like the following to believe that offenders wait for any length of time to re offend, if they're going to. "hey, so-and-so is doing this illegal thing, and you know they just got out of jail/prison for the exact same thing." "I'll advise my officers, can I get your name and phone number please?" "Oh, I want to be anonymous, just go arrest them."

  2. I have a brother that is a guard at a local prison where, "education, education, education," is taken to an extreme. A few years ago they had a new inmate that was forced into GED classes because he couldn't "prove" he had a high school diploma. Having a Master's in Biology was seen as insufficient proof. DOC gets more federal money for every inmate that takes GED classes, so every one of them MUST go to GED classes.

  3. FarmGirl is right on the mark. "Witnesses" do not want to go to court, and actually stand up in public and under oath, tell what they have seen, or know. They'd just as soon see someone arrested for their "truthful" information, no matter how good their information really is. But, God help the officer who would arrest them for slander, which the officer has not heard! That's unConstitutional!
    And then there is winter, and homelessness is not comfortable. Food is hard to find.
    But, you also can't have the lawless running the streets! It is a conundrum.

  4. Education serves no purpose. They then get pushed into a job market that is already saturated with low and no skilled people. Even if you turn them all into computer programmers, the only job they will be able to get is hacking you and maybe identity theft.

    If one really thinks that "if only these guys had other opportunities", then maybe he should stop killing their opportunities by giving everything away to immigrants.

    In the building where I work, the entire cleaning staff is Guatemalan (and I don't work in Guatemala). None speak English. All are working and getting paid. What "education" does prison teach that is currently keeping criminals from applying for these jobs? 1. How to use an alarm clock. 2. How to follow instructions. 3. Yes, the boss is in charge. 4. You may not take stuff home with you, it's not yours.

  5. I just got back from court. One of the cases before the one I'm on was a parole revocation hearing. All the defendant had to do was hold down a job and comply with probation and, if that was done, the charges would have been dismissed and the defendant would have walked away with no record.

    Sweet deal, no?

    Defendant couldn't or wouldn't do it. So the defendant went away for seven years, with the cuffs being applied right then and there and off to the local jail for later transport to prison.

    Dumb fuck.

  6. What do you do with the ones that truly want to turn their life around?

    As far as I can tell, "paying your debt to society" is forever on-going and does not end when you are off parole or served your term. A decent job will not be forthcoming for any but a very minuscule minority.

    With today's electronic files and lack of a new frontier, a fresh start does not exist.

  7. Something that I've noted is that many felons have minimal ability to think about the future. Now is big, tomorrow is doable, next week isn't on the radar at all. In days of yore, these folks were employable as ranch/farm hands, miners, factory workers and soldiers. They'd live at the ranch house/company apartment/barracks, get their food from the farm kitchen/company store/dining hall, a foreman/boss/officer would handle the planning.

    The farms and ranches are mechanized and need fewer people, same with mining and factories. There isn't much call for folks who can't plan ahead, we have robots to do the repetitive tasks. What do we do with the people who can't think abstractly? Putting them on welfare and paying them to have more children is… counterproductive in a national sense.

  8. The crime rate and the recidivism rate can never go down over any meaningful period of time. "All government, seeks more control, always" – Hershel Smith. Therefore, more rules and more rules broken, always. We could keep the "hard" criminals in prison, OK, but the numbers will not be less.
    You mention Drug Dealing. Prohibition does not work. Outlawing drugs creates allure, causes prices to skyrocket, and sweeps the results into the shadows. The allure causes more first time takers, The prices skyrocketing causes violent criminal war, and by sweeping the problem underground it hides the results from 9 yr old's who, if they saw it would think; "yuck, that is to be avoided, look at those people." And as far as criminal charges for users is concerned, what one does where there is no intent, no victim, and no realized offense against another, the criminals in this case are those that draft and implement such "laws".
    Your conclusion is correct. For those whose first and natural career choice is crime, then crime does pay.

  9. If you want less criminals . Its actually really elemental stuff, its just politically impossible and in fact unwanted.

    #1 Insist on intact male headed stable families.

    #2 Insist on closed borders and a more homogeneous anti-crime culture.

    #3 Have less crimes. In most cases "no victim, no crime." is a good motto.

    #4 Have stable employment and laws that prevent workers from being used as fungible commodities.

    #5 Have a broad range of jobs for people of different temperaments. There are people who as you noted are bored and impulsive but given useful work to do and supervision can be kept from preying on people.

    #6 Have a good apolitical mental health system

    Do these things and you can basically close most of your prisons.

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