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Schubart: Corrections Debate

Americans are crossing ideological lines to question why we have the highest incarceration rate in the world.For every 100,000 citizens, China jails 165, Russia 450, and the U.S. 754. In 2008, one in 100 Americans were behind bars and one in 32 was under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

Reasons include racism, paranoia, and xenophobia but few are based in reality or sound penal philosophy. In 2014, 68% of offenders were rearrested within three years and 77% within five years. So much for detention and the death penalty as deterrents to crime – reminding me of a famous Free Press headline of some years back that read, Death Penalty Found to Reduce Recidivism.

Whether we’re questioning Correction policy now because of the $75B cost, the poor societal return-on-investment, or the questionable logic and ethics is less important than the fact that incarceration is finally being examined through new lenses.

Here in Vermont, Corrections is making serious efforts to reduce the population and to find successful pathways to social and economic re-entry. But it’s police, prosecutors, legislators, and courts who jail people. Corrections simply oversees their sentences and security.

The desire to eliminate risk often generates legislation responding to a tragic, if rare, criminal incident. Vermont S. 154 is such a bill, calling for “enhanced penalties for assaulting an employee of the Family Services Division of the Department for Children and Families and to establish the crime of “criminal threatening.”

Unfortunately, this type of knee-jerk legislation only expands the thoroughfare into prison and removes discretion from the hands of judges – as did the Rockefeller Drug Laws with their mandatory minimum sentences.

Most penal authorities agree that the prison environment enhances criminal skills and recidivism, and that the best strategy for successful social re-entry is diversion from prison, not sentencing to prison. S. 154 criminalizes more bad behavior, but it doesn’t prevent it.

We can start by avoiding efforts to legislate morality or criminalize more bad behavior as does S.154, by passing S. 206, which amends technical violations that send parolees back to prison and S.207 that opens new doors to secure reentry.

We might also imagine how to use our underutilized college systems to forge a secure offender pathway to reunion with families, society, and the economy.

Bill Schubart lives and writes in Hinesburg. His latest book is Lila & Theron.
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