Probably some readers have by now read The Pew Center on the States’ new report on our nation’s prison population stating that more than one in 100 adults are behind bars – one in nine black men, ages 20-30, and one in 36 adult Hispanic men.
Nationwide, about 1.6 million are in prison, which puts the U.S. at the top of all nations where we have valid statistics. Quite a distinction! Yet we continue spending billions a year under the misguided assumption that incarceration makes us a safer society. It does not in all cases.
Every year, more than 700,000 prisoners are released back into society – many of them mentally ill or addicted to various substances. While in prison, approximately 75 percent of them did not receive mental health and/or drug treatment programs. Thus, many return to society with the same issues they had when they first entered prison.
The juvenile justice system, alas, suffers from the same deficiencies. In many states the old-fashioned, Dickensian, punitive approach is still predominant, and rehabilitation is dismissed as “soft.”
This should be, by now, a tiresome and cliché-ridden story if it weren’t tragically and inexcusably still true. The facts should be overwhelming – in many states, recidivism rates rank between 70 and 80 percent. Now in professional baseball you can succeed three times out of 10 and earn a big fat contract as a “.300 hitter.” But in the justice system, to fail seven out of 10 would suggest that some different approaches might be tried.
For the past five years, my small non-profit organization – New Visions Foundation – has operated an after-school program in one of the 18 incarceration camps for juvenile offenders in Southern California. We offer a Monday-Friday, 3 p.m. – 5 p.m. menu of electives: i.e., filmmaking, music, theatre writing and production, computer skills, creative writing, journalism, human development skills, and the like. We treat the 14-18-year-old boys with respect, encouragement, kindness, and we demand the same in return. We also focus on post-camp placement, and we try to build on interests discovered or engendered by our programs by placing boys in schools, jobs, and apprenticeships where they can explore newly found interests.
It works. The recidivism rate of the participants is lower in our program than for those who take part in the regular camp program. We have placed more than 100 students in community colleges, private schools, boarding schools, job corps and conservation corps programs, the Army, and other programs which get these boys out of their gang-controlled neighborhoods. The keys to our success are one-to-one, personalized, consistent contact working towards positive, feasible goals and, as mentioned above – respect, encouragement, and kindness.
I know that we can dramatically reduce crime, violence, ruined lives, and taxpayer expense by replicating the approach.