Friday, February 1, 2008

Prison Break

When Michael Vick finally walks out of federal prison after serving his 23 month long sentence, he will be greeted largely by distrustful eyes and critical reporters from all facets of the media. Although the fate of his NFL career will hinge on Commissioner Roger Goodell’s evaluation, Vick’s future will still be head and shoulders above the rest of the criminals who leave thereafter. Michael Vick will be 28 years old by the time he is out of prison. He will be able to look forward to his multi-million dollar mansion, television interviews and thousands of still adoring fans. His future while not certain, will be brighter than the hundreds of others who served similar sentences and are released that same day.

The fact is that over 65% of persons released from Federal or State prisons will be rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within 3 years. Based on the findings from a 1994 study, of the 272,111 offenders discharged that year, the combined total of arrests over their recorded careers totaled nearly 4,877,000. That figure averages out to 18 arrests per person. Still convinced our judicial system works?

I suppose I should clarify myself before I begin to sound like an advocate for criminal behavior. First off, I believe in the judicial process. It’s a belief that my father had instilled in me as I grew up watching him prosecute and later defend criminals. I watched in disbelief at times as I would read in the newspaper of him defending a rapist or child abuser. I wondered how a man with such honor who had spent so many years as a prosecutor could go on the other side and defend such actions with the same conviction.

It was not until he explained the origins of our judicial system and the laws that govern us that I truly began to understand the purpose that he served and how our society needed people like my father. Although unpopular at times, he would insist that all persons had the right to a fair trial, and that our law was based on the tenets of innocence until proven guilty. He used terms like due process, fairness and impartiality which to an outsider or first time criminal, might not sound like much, to him though, they were the hallmarks of justice .It is perhaps the reason why he chose to accept so many pro bono cases and defended the lowliest forms of society when very few would come to their defense.

My father molded my “judicial education,” and while I may not have a fancy law degree that says I am part of the establishment, I can read and comprehend the overwhelming statistics that are at our disposal to say that our prison system does not work.

The problem starts at sentencing. There is so much emphasis by our judges and legislatures to “talk tough,” that they are completely missing the point. The whole purpose of prisons should be to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes so that they can get out and become productive members of society. Instead, prisons have become de facto instruments of recidivism. They have failed to serve the purpose they were set out to do.

Let me be clear. I want all criminals who are convicted of a crime to pay their dues. But don’t think I’m going to allow a little rhetoric like “soft on crime,” scare me into thinking that my heart is not in the right place. In our judicial system there ought to be mechanisms in place to not only protect the victim but to also rehabilitate the criminal so that such acts do not happen again. Otherwise, there serves no purpose of having criminals rot in a prison cell that costs taxpayers money. ... (That’s another blog altogether).

Pundits don’t talk about our prisons or prisoners because they are too busy distracting us from the real problems. They will have us believe that immigration is invading the very fabric of our nation when in fact it has been the pillar of our strength. Politicians ignore what goes on behind bars because as long as these criminals stay behind bars (no matter how many times they continue to go back), they are no longer a problem. Legislatures have completely wiped themselves clean of the quandaries that face our prison system, because after all who would want to help a convicted felon? In fact, one could even say this issue has become modern day taboo.

There are certain crimes that I have no tolerance for, and for those serving life sentences, this blog need not apply. However, for those criminals convicted of non-violent crimes, I think we ought to consider them in the equation not only for their benefit but for our society as well.

Many of you might not be as sympathetic as I am and if you feel the urge to refute any of these broad proposals then please do. But before you begin to wonder why I chose this topic and why I am defending criminals, first take a look at these lopsided numbers based on demographics alone.

Characteristics of jail inmates

The prevalence of imprisonment in 2001 was higher for
--black males (16.6%) and Hispanic males (7.7%) than for white males (2.6%)

Lifetime chances of a person going to prison are higher for
--Men (11.3%) than for women (1.8%)
--Blacks (18.6%) and Hispanics (10%) than for whites (3.4%)

--Based on current rates of first incarceration, an estimated 32% of black males will enter State or Federal prison during their lifetime, compared to 17% of Hispanic males and 5.9% of white males.

--If recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated 1 of every 15 persons (6.6%) will serve time in a prison during their lifetime.

I’m not suggesting that law enforcement purposely targets blacks and Hispanics and that is the reason for the disproportions nor am I trying to scare anyone into thinking that we'll all be rounded up by the police in the near future. I’m saying that our prisons are a farce and rather than attempting to solve the crisis at the root, we wait until the problem happens again and again and again. Prisons are poorly funded, managed and supervised. A vision for correction of criminals is virtually non-existent. But don’t take my word for it; ask the criminals.

For the criminal who pays his debt to society and walks out of jail with no more than a bus pass in his back pocket and without a support system to rely on, the hope of ever making it in the real world is unlikely. What these prisoners need is the kind of vocational and secondary education that will land them a job when they get out. Half of them do not have a high school diploma; let’s give them a chance to get a GED. Many of them have families on the outside; let’s have parole officers do the legwork on job placement for when they get out. The statistics state that Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to win up in jail than Whites; let’s create out reach organizations at the grassroots level with an emphasis on mentorship. The solutions are not simple, we know this. They cost time and money. More than anything, they require people to get past the mindset that what we’re doing works.

Judges fail to use their position on the bench to be innovative. They are scared to act out of the benefit of both the criminal and victim in fear that they are not upholding judicial precedence. They refuse to accept anything but the status quo because “that’s the way it’s been done before.” The focus in our judicial system should be on rehabilitating criminals. To think that by simply putting them in a prison solves anything is not only disingenuous but unoriginal.

All I’m asking is for people to question whether or not the system is working. Every time I read the annual recidivism statistics, I fail to believe that we have the best methods in place. I believe in second chances, and rather than just saying it, I think it’s time for us to put our money where our mouth is and to put some substance into that statement. We need to fund prisons and create opportunities for criminals to be successful. Otherwise, we’re in for more of the same and if the current state is any indicator of our future, than the outlook doesn’t sound too good.

I’ll leave it to the always pertinent Winston Churchill for the last word on this one…”One of the most unfailing tests of a civilization lies in how a country treats its criminals.”

*All statistics were derived from

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