Before I begin to talk about commonly applied strategies of prevention and rehabilitation designed to reduce the numbers of criminal offenders and recidivists amongst us, let’s begin with a note about statistics. In all of my earlier blogs, I talk about the “average” offender and their neurological and personal history. In reality, there are many classes of offenders. While the majority fit the wide bounds that I described, there are innumerable exceptions among the 7+ million individuals operating under the jurisdiction of an American court — including a significant minority who don’t easily fit into the very big sack I described. As for all human problems, real solutions must deal with real variability and complexity. Of course.
Prevention and rehabilitation are the keys. There are hundreds of thousands of citizens among us that are trying to prevent destructive outcomes that lead to criminal behavior in children; several hundreds of thousands of others focus on earnestly and often-effectively helping the convicted miscreant return usefully to society, or to help them operate within it so that they do not collapse back into prison. I do not mean to denigrate their efforts. They have saved the bacon of millions of young men and women by helping rescue them from the clutches of addiction; by helping them complete their high school equivalency or even useful series of junior college or university courses; by helping them develop job skills that can be a pre-requisite for successful social re-entry for individuals who may have few practical skills; and by helping them through their counsel and guidance to regain a stronger sense of empathy, and to seriously reconsider how them might more successfully approach and operate socially within their world.
Although the budget crises that have plagued many states over the past year have negatively impacted these efforts, before the current era there had actually been a minor surge in the installation and growth of rehabilitation programs. A main driving force was economics. With a little effort, the recidivism rate, especially for the low-hanging fruit (e.g., the drug offender; the petty thief) COULD be lowered. Incarceration rates in some states had been stabilized, or even dropped a little. Alas, much of these gains have now been given back, because when the budget axe falls the rehabilitation of offenders is near the bottom of almost every state’s list of those deserving ongoing support.
While we can celebrate these small past gains, they were strictly local. Overall, as a society, our crime rates, numbers of incarcerated individuals, and recidivism rates continue to climb. WHY is this the case? WHY do the sincere efforts of so many good people who are trying to help this population having such a limited overall impact?
I submit that there are three main reasons. FIRST, we have established conditions that enable these problems to grow over a young life, in the brains of millions of innocent young individuals who ultimately offend. By the time that an individual comes under the jurisdiction of our criminal justice system, they have often begun or lived life with a history of neurological wounding, and they have had tens or hundreds of thousands of hours of experiences that have deeply embedded their detachment from us, and have greatly strengthened their understanding that there is a large mis-match between what the world has to offer, and what their world shall actually deliver to them. We’ve set up almost-ideal conditions for these problems to grow in young brains. Few modern societies do a better job of creating rich soil for growing criminal mis-behavior!
The SECOND problem is rather akin to the fundamental problems facing American schools. We KNOW what good education is all about. We HAVE excellent models that we know CAN be effective. HOWEVER, solutions are complicated and expensive, and we’re just not serious enough about fixing the problem to go to all of the effort that would be required to fix them. American schools and American prisons are (alas) both limited by American societal laziness and disinterest. We KNOW how to train kids to overcome the problems that otherwise lead, inexorably, to criminal offense. We KNOW how to make more substantial differences for a much higher proportion of young and adult offenders.
It’s just easier to lock ’em up, and whenever possible, throw away the key. Disposable citizens.
What a concept.
The THIRD problem: The primary approach to plastically ‘repairing’ the brain of the offender is inadequate for the task at hand. An individual who’s lack of empathy stems from a lifetime of deprivation and detachment is not going to grow attachment-based empathy to the wider human population to a very significant extent through a few group therapy sessions. An individual who has employed aggression as a survival tool since their third birthday is not going to be responsive to being instructed to just stop it, on a dime, for their own good. An offender who is immersed in an environment of detached, aggressive, apathetic individuals for 23 hours a day is not going to be easily transformed into a sympathetic, tolerant, understanding individual in an hour-long, once-a-week work-study or social-retry training class.
What, realistically, COULD be done to change this picture. I’ll talk about a range of possible changes that could make a major difference in my next blog. I submit that just as in repairing our health care system there can be enormous human benefits both for offenders and for the rest of us — not the least of which is our overcoming the burden of unfairness that we impose on others, by our almost pathological misunderstanding of the neurological origins of criminal behavior. As with revising our health care system, I submit that we could almost certainly save vast piles of treasure by adopting a more neurologically informed approach to “criminal justice”. And by so doing, a criminally UNJUST system just might be transformed into something that is closer to our expressed ideals of fairness and ‘humanity’.
Let’s fix it. Let’s prevent millions of innocent children from falling over the cliff. Let’s help millions of individuals who have offended to repair themselves in ways that can greatly increase the probability that they can successfully live amongst us. Let’s save a helluva lot of $$ in the process!
Read the next blog on this subject, for an initial discussion of how we can transform this system, for the benefit of all concerned.