According to a new study by the Pew Center, roughly $52 billion per year is spent on corrections, primarily maintaining the prison system, but this hasn’t prevented offenders from returning to a life behind bars. In fact, there have been cases where people actually requested to go back to prison. So why would people such as Jack Sutherland, Charles Latham, and Ronnie Stienke — cited in the Pew Center study — want to return after obtaining their freedom?
In November of 1990, I was convicted of a non-violent offense, receiving a twenty-three year prison term. Twenty-three years is a very long time for a first time felon facing a petty drug case. It cost the federal government almost a quarter of a million dollars for me to serve this sentence, when only a five or 10 year sentence would have produced the same results – punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation, at a fraction of the cost.
Currently we are facing the threat of a possible shut down of the federal government if Congress can’t agree on a new budget, while looking at billion dollar budget cuts at a time of near-record high unemployment rates nationally and in the states; yet half a trillion dollars per year is spent on corrections, even though it continues to produce high recidivism rates. Take a minute to multiply the amount of money spent on me (quarter of a million dollars for a 23 year sentence) by the one in 31 adults who are either incarcerated or on probation or parole in the U.S. That’s a huge amount of money.
If the new Pew Study shows “4 out of 10 offenders” return to prison within a “three year time frame,” clearly something is not working.
Is prison always the answer, or should the government implement alternative treatments/plans for some offenses that are more cost-effective and safer for American communities?
Ronnie Stienke of Michigan, Charles Latham of Florida and Jack Sutherland of Ohio intentionally took actions to return to prison. One of the offenders wanted to go back believing this was the only solution to his drug addiction, while another — like so many other ex-felons — felt he was never given a chance to make it in society.
With the nation’s present unemployment rate at 8.8 percent, and offenders required to reveal to potential employers their criminal past, it’s no wonder the recidivism rate stands so high. If an offender can’t find employment, it’s tough to see how the recidivism rate will get any lower, and easy to see how it will get worse.
Another serious challenge is finding housing. As with a job application, apartment leases pose the same question – have you ever been convicted of a crime — making it virtually impossible to obtain either, without some kind of support from the city or county or agencies working to assist ex-felons.
Speaking of support … the Second Chance Act of 2007 was signed into law by former President George W. Bush April 9 2008 to provide just that kind of support. This law was designed to improve the outcome for people returning to their home community from prison or county jail. It authorized federal grants to government agencies and nonprofit organizations to provide employment assistance, substance abuse treatment, housing, and other services intended to help the ex-felons get back on their feet — and to reduce recidivism.
In my opinion, this legislation is great but some of these offenders are still not getting the substance abuse treatment they need. More prisons are being built, but a lot less is being spend on treatment centers. As for those who are not substance abusers, their primary need is a job. But which employers are courageous enough to look beyond the “convicted felon” status and hire an ex-convict?
Retired Lieutenant Garry L. Jones, who has worked in both state and federal prison systems, would often see offenders returning to prison and would ask, “Why are you back in here — you just got out?” For those returning to prison, most reply in the same way: “I can’t make it out there. There’s no housing, no job, etc.”
I ran into the same problem following my release from prison; I could not find a job or a place to live. No, I did not return to prison, but instead I slept on the cement floor of a Champion storage rental unit for six months while taking bird-baths in the bathrooms of local malls and corporate buildings.
We need to put that half a trillion dollars we are spending per year into other areas — rehabilitation, not continued punishment.
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