The truth is, as Americans, we love justice. We love getting the bad guys. Even Hollywood knows that. We cheer for the rule of law and taking care of business. Lethal Weapon, Die Hard… pick any one of thousands of films where we get the smug satisfaction of locking people away at the end of the movie. Why wouldn’t we? The basis of our rights as Americans, as humans, is freedom — is it not?
If someone is sent to death row, it must be because they are ”remorseless killers who would kill again if given the opportunity.” Why else would they be there? Men and women who steal, are violent or sell drugs to teenagers need to be taken off the streets and sent to prison — anyone who impedes the freedom or livelihood of another should be punished. That’s the law. If someone is sent to death row, it must be because they are ”remorseless killers who would kill again if given the opportunity.”
But what happens once they’ve done their time?
In 2005, an estimated 68 percent of 405,000 people released from prison returned within three years.
After five years, that number had risen to 75 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Are we willing to believe that number exists in a vacuum, circumstantial to the offenders’ own decisions?
In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed into law an omnibus crime bill that included the “three strikes” provision, mandating life sentences for criminals convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions, including drug crimes (often a nonviolent offense). From his own words, 21 years later:
And we wound up…putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives. — May 7th, 2015
The law in this country is somewhat uniquely subjected to the evolving community standards of humanity. Twenty years ago it was widely accepted that if you were convicted of a felony three times, you went to jail for the rest of your life. Today we pay the price for that, with this:
“The corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions, functions, that we have in our entire government” said Justice Kennedy during an interaction with Arkansas’ own Senator Womack on March 24th of this year. Justice Kennedy usually sides with law enforcement in criminal procedure cases, but earlier this year he joined the court’s liberals to hold the position that prison overcrowding can grow so severe it violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”
According to the American Psychological Association, “Incarceration can devastate communities and families separated from their loved ones. In some communities, a majority of men have been incarcerated, which leaves a major hole in the fabric of society. These men can’t provide for their families and are absent from their children, with the result being higher rates of poverty and the likelihood of mental health and behavioral issues for the younger generation. That can lead to their incarceration and perpetuate the cycle of imprisonment.”
People will say we should be doing more, but if I were to say the house down the street would be an ideal halfway house, what’s your neighborhood’s response to that? It seems easier to lock people up than to help them reintegrate into the community — or to keep them in the community initially.
— Craig Haney, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz
This raises the uncomfortable question: are we frustrated enough yet? Or do we not want reform, but instead choose to watch other people struggle through hardship, making us feel better about our comparatively spectacular lives?
For the year to date, in the valued 25-to-54 age group, “Lockup” averages 263,000 viewers, compared with, for example, 189,000 for MSNBC’s “The Chris Matthews Show.”
In Washington, repeats of “Lockup” draw more 25-to-54-year-olds than live newscasts on the other cable channels.
When Cairo erupted one day this winter [February 2011], Fox News and CNN continued their live coverage through the following Saturday night. MSNBC flipped to “Lockup” — and attracted twice the viewers.
—Washington Post, June, 2011
Employment can make a strong contribution to recidivism-reduction efforts because it refocuses individuals’ time and efforts on prosocial activities, making them less likely to engage in riskier behaviors and to associate with people who do. Having a job also enables individuals to contribute income to their families, which can generate more personal support, stronger positive relationships, enhanced self-esteem and improved mental health. For these reasons, employment is often seen as a gateway to becoming and remaining a law-abiding and contributing member of a community.
“On April 25, 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its guidance on the use of criminal background checks for employment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, clarifying that blanket exclusions for individuals with criminal records violate Title VII because of its disparate racial impact. The guidance urges employers to consider the ‘nature of the crime the time elapsed, and the nature of the job’ in hiring decisions.”
— Bureau of Justice Assistance, September 2013
The guidance urges employers to consider the “nature of the crime, the time elapsed and the nature of the job” in hiring decisions.
Recidivism refers to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior. It is measured by rearrest or return to prison during a three-year period following the prisoner’s release.
“…Research does not support the proposition that simply placing an individual in a job is a silver bullet for reducing criminal behaviors.
What various studies do suggest is that to reduce criminal behaviors and recidivism, employment service providers and corrections professionals must address individuals’ antisocial attitudes and beliefs associated with crime, many of which also impact an individual’s ability to succeed in the workplace. In order for employment service providers to help lower individuals’ risk of recidivism, individuals must be motivated to change their behavior (this is especially true of young males).”
— Bureau of Justice Assistance, September 2013
While business owners cannot change antisocial attitudes or beliefs, they are in the industry of changing behaviors.
Everyone arrives their first day on the job clueless about the company culture, what is expected of them and how to perform excellently. If they stay with the organization long enough, eventually, each morning they walk into the door, they adjust their attitudes and behaviors in order to deliver the best results for their position, whether it’s in leadership, management or labor alone.
None of us can change how we feel. We can change how we act and our feelings will follow.
Employers carry on their personhood at all times, powerful weapons of change. Motivating factors that help people catch vision, perform difficult tasks with a desire to push until the results are achieved and work together as a team. These are also the tools to anti-recidivism.
Recently released in theaters, Disney and Marvel’s superhero film Ant-Man introduced the protagonist as an ex-offender who gets fired from Baskin-Robbins once his employer finds out he was recently in prison for a high-profile crime. In July of this year, President Barack Obama visited a prison. Orange Is The New Black star Piper Kerman recently drew attention to the appalling fact that women make up the fastest growing prison population. Even Pope Francis is prioritizing the issue, scheduling a visit to Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia during his two-day visit to the city on Sept. 27-28. This topic is gaining rapid traction, but it’s not enough.
We cannot wait for the system that both created and perpetuates the problem to fix it.
We must, as responsible community leaders, step up and be wingmen to our states’ re-entry programs. And, business owners are equipped with the resources and skills to make real changes in recidivism.
All of us have seen or read about a compassionate adult who ran interference on a troubled teen’s life and helped them make real change. It’s time to implement that perspective with adults who need assistance in reintegrating into normal life after spending years of their lives behind bars.
Business owners, hire ex-offenders. Immediately give them responsibility, make them part of a team and help them build a professional identity.
Identify their gifts and talents, and help them successfully deploy those to their own benefit and the benefit of others on a daily basis. Build their confidence and value. Show them a mirror so they can see they are not the sum of their worst decisions, but inherently valuable because that’s how they were created, and that’s how they can choose to live.
The truth is, as Americans, we love justice. But sometimes, justice isn’t only putting away the bad guys. Sometimes justice is uncomfortable to have in our businesses and neighborhoods, and looks a lot like grace.