Five years ago, I was an ordinary mom and like most people I knew nothing about the criminal justice system and quite honestly, like most, I didn’t care. It didn’t affect me.
But one night I went to bed and that all changed. My 15-year-old daughter snuck out with other kids and our lives changed forever. They committed a crime that got them 10 years in prison and 10 years’ probation. I now became one of “those people” who make up nearly half of America, who have a family member in prison. That’s right, nearly 50%.
It was shocking. Understanding what happened and what was going to happen became my top priority so I went back to school and obtained my master’s in criminal justice. I read about how prisons and the criminal justice system should be and quickly realized that is hardly what is happening. The correctional system lost its purpose and the laws are draconian. It’s nowhere near correctional and only making things worse. It’s not only unsustainable, it’s a humanitarian crisis.
I often sit in visitation at the prison and look around at all the insiders with their families and wonder what did they do to end up here. What’s their story? What purpose is prison serving? Is this what people want? Now someone else lost a mother, father, child, sister or brother. Does this even help the victim?
My daughter is an adult now and she has seen more at the age of 19 than I have or than most adults have in a lifetime. There are so many things she could be learning that are more positive and productive. She has now aged out of the teenage roller coaster but society would rather punish than provide a way to rehabilitate.
We hear the same old cliché, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” Well, they are doing their time and then some. The “time” goes beyond their incarceration sentence. Society makes them remember they’re a criminal for the rest of their lives. It’s hard to find a job, find a place to live; heck, it’s even hard to find friends.
The Philosophies of the Correctional System
There are five philosophies of corrections: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation and restoration. There is no rehabilitation. Incapacitation works only while they’re locked up, but most come home. Deterrence only works if it’s certain because most people feel they won’t get caught when it comes to committing crimes. Only one of these philosophies glares out as the sole purpose of corrections and that is retribution. It’s about getting even. The real premise of retribution was fair punishment, but it’s not how it’s worked out over the years. It’s “just desserts,” it’s revenge. “You need to pay for what you did” as people say and hey, I get it. They are angry.
The Failure of the Criminal Justice System
The decisions people make have a root cause. Prisons do not address problems. It actually adds to the problem. It’s far from rehabilitative and society still chooses to be tough on crime. Well, the tough on crime approach and 85% war on crime (inmates must serve 85% of their sentence) has miserably failed along with the unjust sentencing like mandatory minimums.
I mean who in their right mind thinks it’s OK to give 25, 30, 40 years to life for nonviolent drug charges? This hardly fits the crime, which defines what retributivism really is. Even when the judge knows it is wrong, their hands are tied.
As Florida Sen. Jeffrey Brandes said, “This is not a prison system that anybody can look you in the eye and tell you a person will be safe in the state’s care.” This scares me and should scare everyone. Ninety-five percent of prisoners return home to your neighborhoods. There are all walks of life in prisons: professionals, teachers, veterans, nurses, everyday people like you and me.
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch admits it’s in a crisis. The Florida legislators admit it’s in a crisis. There is a lack of programs, high attrition rates for correction officers and too many prisoners in the system with idle time. Only 5% to 6% of prisoners are enrolled in educational programs. They are not learning a damn thing in there. Simply warehousing people with lots of idle time and abuse at the hands of officers is a dangerous mix.
Let prisons deal with only those who are truly dangerous. Florida is behind when it comes to data-driven effective criminal justice policies and sentencing. High-risk offenders are more successful with programs. In fact, low-risk offenders do not do well with programs and may even increase recidivism. This is why it is better for them to be out and serving their sentence in community corrections.
There are risk tools that can identify high-risk vs. low-risk prisoners. The medium-risk offenders are the hardest to assess, but community corrections with intense supervision is a great option for them. For low-risk, only minimal reporting is necessary.
A few states are using kiosk reporting systems for probationers. According to the National Institute of Justice, Maryland and New York City did a pilot study on the kiosk reporting system. They reported a drop in recidivism and that it allowed more time for the probation officers to meet with medium- to high-risk offenders. What a brilliant concept!
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures Corrections and Sentencing Work Group, 37 states participate in earned-time credits for programs. In 2009, Oregon reported a savings of $25 million for just 80 days off sentences. Programs prepare them to come home and have been proven to reduce recidivism. That’s making the community safer and a cost savings.
How to Treat Minors
As for children, we must consider even further alternatives. Why should children be treated differently than adults when it comes to breaking the law? Because they are different than adults. We can all think of some stupid stuff we did as kids. We just don’t say it out loud.
We must weigh in the factor that makes kids less culpable for crimes; not excusing their crime but mitigating their culpability as a teen. No one is saying they shouldn’t be held accountable, but it’s a scientific fact that their brain is not fully developed to weigh risks and consequences even into their 20s. This development is different for every individual.
As their brain grows, they will self-regulate. Understanding the process of development can help the juvenile justice system identify the right program to aid in the intervention of teens’ lives. We apply age-graded laws for driving, voting, serving on juries, serving in the military, employment and entering contracts, so why are we pulling out the “adult card” when it comes to crimes?
A Department of Juvenile Justice program has the means to offer rehabilitative programs specific to juveniles’ needs. Other options too: Restorative justice offers healing for both sides. What’s going on in their lives? Sending a child to prison and removing them from the most important social bond — the family — only destroys their emotional well-being and they will become institutionalized.
Adult charges label that child for life as a felon, which makes opportunities difficult like jobs and housing, and the label creates rejection from society in general. These lost opportunities only make things worse and increase recidivism.
Minors spend their time basically in solitary. My daughter spent two years mostly isolated in an abandoned dorm of the prison. This is because they can’t be around adults due to the PREA Act of 2003. They are alone for chow time, rec time and for schoolwork.
There are no programs for minors in adult prisons. Education is scarce. If you do not pass the TABE test (Tests of Adult Basic Education) for the GED, there’s nothing further. They offer very few meaningful programs and a lot do not qualify for the programs. The youth group (18-24) is set up sort of like the military. They would rather the girls do 10 push-ups than learn 10 math problems or learn cognitive skills for difficult scenarios in life.
The main goal of correctional sentencing should always be public safety, which it is, but applying data-driven, effective policies to it is what the system has lost sight of, causing a great fear of offenders being on the streets. We are locking them away and for long periods of time to meet the incapacitation and retribution goal with no rehabilitation.
Between the mandatory minimums and the 85% truth-in-sentencing requirement, our budget cannot sustain the warehousing of people that has happened. Locking up does not offer crime reduction and really makes it worse. There is no rehabilitation in prison. There is no money to do so. There is no nutrition and the medical care is Third World to none. People die of neglect in prisons. The ones who do survive come home with PTSD after being locked away from society for so long, and then we expect them to be law-abiding citizens with no tools for a future.
Let’s focus on less prison and using that cost savings to offer programs in community corrections. For those who are in prison, let’s offer them programs too. If they are not a problem offender, then offer incentives like gain time awards toward completion of programs. We need to address these draconian laws and sentences.
Florida has many bills that would address all these issues. Let’s pass these bills and add retroactivity. By offering incentives and rehabilitation, it is a cost savings for the whole state. It also reduces recidivism and increases public safety. It is time we listen to the data and pass some meaningful reform this legislative session.
As Harry E. Allen, a professor and author at the University of Louisville, said, “It is hard to identify the benefits inmates gain from prison, but the harm done there is readily seen. If you want to increase the crime problem, incite men to greater evil, and intensify criminal inclinations and proclivities, then lock violators up in prison for long periods, reduce their outside contacts, stigmatize them and block their lawful employment when released, all the while setting them at tutelage under the direction of more skilled and predatory criminals. I know of no better way to gain your ends than these.”
Kim Lawrance is a Florida juvenile justice reform advocate and mother of a directly impacted teenager.