Some Offenders Believe That Justice Reforms Are BS



Are we playing a game of meaningless gestures?

Is Ban the Box pointless?

Is voting a hollow gesture?

Offenders, criminals or justice-involved individuals; are labels important?


By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.

Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Graduate-Johns Hopkins University.


“Nobody’s giving me a job based on ban the box,” said the offender about to participate in a podcast about the criminal justice issues. “It’s all BS designed to make me feel that people care.” If people really wanted to help those coming out of prison, they would have given me what I needed in prison, or they would be helping me now (he was under parole and probation supervision). “It’s all endless crap.”

Talking to hundreds of people in prison or on parole and probation gives you a unique perspective. Offenders can be brutally honest.

While the rest of society see current or former criminals from the viewpoint of the endless horror stories on the evening news, most offenders understand who they are and their chances for a productive life. Many know that they are challenged individuals with drug and mental health histories with insufficient job backgrounds.

Most don’t want to be involved in crime. Most understand that drugs will destroy their souls. Most acknowledge that they had dysfunctional parenting and they will spend the rest of their lives trying to escape their upbringings.

Spend time with offenders and they tell you that they understand what it will take for them to lead productive lives.

They also understand that government, politicians and some advocates see them as pawns in a larger game.

Encapsulating the comments of many offenders: “Politicians, ministers and those who say that they are trying to help us are full of crap. They come up with ban the box when we know that banning the box is meaningless. The employer is still going to check my background and run my credit score, so I’m not getting the job anyway.”

“What I need is job training and help kicking drugs. Get me sober. Give me skills that people will pay for regardless of my background. Find me work. The rest is bullshit.”

A Disingenuous Discussion?

Those of us who have spent years working with offenders are supportive of anything that helps, but everyone understands that most initiatives won’t have the impact necessary to change lives or reduce crime.

Banning the box (prospective employers can’t ask about criminal histories unless they are contemplating a job offer) makes sense; we want employers to get to know the candidate before she asks about their background.

Voting rights seem to be the correct approach. People who vote care, and people who care don’t commit crimes, right?

We don’t want offenders to feel shut out of society so we don’t call them criminals or even offenders; they are now known as justice involved individuals. That’s egalitarian, right?

The Obama administration plans in its final weeks to ease the legal obligations on prisoners to pay for child support while they are locked up, targeting practices that critics say can saddle ex-convicts with crippling debts, Reuters reports. The regulatory changes, if put in place, would give President Obama something more to show for his efforts to reform the U.S. criminal justice system. As the first black president of a nation that incarcerates a disproportionately large number of black and Latino men, Obama has made it a priority to address problems that make it difficult for released inmates to reenter society. Reuters

We’re wonderful, caring people, right? We judge our society based on what we do for the disenfranchised, correct? But is it possible that we are the one’s partially responsible for offenders not finding their way out of the morass of crime and drugs?

By playing the “meaningless gesture” game, are we helping or hurting?

“You can call me anything you like,” said one offender. “Just give me a job.”

What Do Offenders Need?

President Obama wants to ease child support obligations. That’s nice. What if President Obama made sure that every federal offender received comprehensive substance abuse and mental health treatment along with education and job training? Wouldn’t that be better?

What if every federal offender was free and clear of mental health demons? What if every federal offender was sober and was prepared to be that way for life? What if every federal offender had the training to get a job of substance within two months of getting out of prison? What if every federal offender who needed to learn how to read (there are more than you think) got the opportunity? What would happen if every federal offender found that those programs continued seamlessly upon release?

What would happen if everything described above occurred in every state in the country? Most data shows that a small fraction of prisoners get access to programs in prison or parole and probation.

What President Obama and an endless number of advocates are doing is avoiding the issue, and that gets us back to the meaningless gestures discussion at the beginning of this article, and also returns us to the cynicism of offenders.

Will It Reduce Crime and Recidivism?

The track record for most prison or community rehabilitation programs is either marginal or shown not to have an impact at all, including the best program the federal government offered  focusing on serious and violent offenders. Some programs have made things worse (recidivism increased).

Has the President funded comprehensive research designed to make sure the rest of us know what works as to rehabilitation programs? Nope.

With data showing that two-thirds of released offenders will be rearrested in three years (there is state data showing that 85 percent of some categories of offenders are rearrested for the same period of time) and that 50 percent go back to prison, the contribution of former prisoners to the crime problem is immense. With the majority of crime not reported, and the majority of reported crime not resulting in an arrest, we know that the numbers are higher than those stated above.

What is the Alternative?

The current system is not working principally because it’s not funded. If we can’t program our way out of recidivism and crime, then we are either stuck with mass incarceration and the tax dollars that go along with it, or we are going to have to release inmates to make room for the truly dangerous. Note that the vast majority of the current inmate population are violent, have violent histories, or are repeat offenders.

We don’t have an alternative. We have to make programming work. It needs to be funded and evaluated to gain maximum effectiveness.

Every inmate within the federal or state systems needs access to comprehensive substance abuse or mental health treatment.

They all need educational programs. They need to know how to read and write proficiently. They all need GED’s or high school diplomas. If job-related college courses are necessary, so be it.

Every inmate needs the job skills necessary to find meaningful employment quickly. If that means that they need to create their own businesses, do it. Having someone skilled in business management and lawn care is a thousand times better than hanging out on the corner every night.

There is no alternative. Either we train offenders in productive living, or our crime and tax burdens continue unchecked.

But for the love of God, let’s not placate ourselves (and the offender population) with gestures that have little to no impact. Either we are going to get real about solving a problem that affects all Americans, or pay the price of higher crime and taxes.

We don’t have a choice.

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