Let’s try not releasing inmates until civilized

This op/ed originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times on December 1, 2007

I wish to pitch a possibly novel notion in the realm of criminal justice. And by “criminal justice” I do not mean incarcerating Congress.The concept is pretty simple. For a certain set of despicable crimes, require convicted felons to earn their way out of prison. In other words, life behind bars until they can prove they are acceptable in society. Let’s call this doctrine “Secured Until Civilized” for the sake of a catchy moniker.

First, let’s not confuse the plan with the quaint and ineffective policy of “time off for good behavior.”

This sorry substitute for instilling self-discipline simply states that one can get out jail earlier than scheduled if he or she acts in a minimally acceptable fashion.

This merely encourages short-term pacification while instilling no rehabilitation. Ex-cons say that they survive confinement by doing their stretch “one day at a time.”

This proposal disables their gambit by turning every day into forever.

Nor is this proposal a form of parole. In modern times, the word “parole” has become synonymous with dysfunctional.

Parole guidelines are loose to the point that any two parole boards would retain and release the same prisoner. And the guidelines for parole rarely have anything to do with actual rehabilitation, instead providing an escape for those who manage to sound apologetic and avoid shanking other inmates.

But what if release depended on demonstrating the internal discipline necessary to no longer be a burden and danger to decent folks? What if you knew that your only way out of the slammer was to manifest and document that you had rehabilitated yourself?Would the average convict — one who is mentally prepared to endure five to 10 years before returning to criminal endeavors — change his or her ways if bootstrapping virtue was the only way out?

This may be the most important question we can ask. Statistically we know that most violent crimes are committed by repeat offenders, and the recidivism rate for lesser crimes is high.

Keeping thugs in jail reduces crime rates and keeps bad influences away from impressionable kids. High recidivism rates indicate current sentences are lackluster deterrents, and nothing in the penal system seemingly instills the needed rectitude for cons to live with the rest of us.

Without doubt, pantywaist politicians and criminal defenders will claim this is cruel and/or unusual punishment.

A more false argument would be difficult to devise without the aid of medication. We already commit people to life in prison without any chance of commutation. A similar sentence with the possibility for release is certainly less cruel. The only thing unusual about this is that it puts the onus of rehabilitation on the convict.

It would require the inmate to develop the fundamental social and work skills required to be a functional adult, which is all we demand of our own children.

Two open-ended questions remain — what crimes would justify this sentence, and what are the criteria for demonstrating rehabilitation?

On the former, certainly nonfatal violence (rape, armed robbery, etc.) would make the list, and given the flagging public acceptance of street crime, many more will be added.

On the latter question, I doubt we could identify a one-size-fits-all solution (any woman who has tried such pantyhose will attest that this is a failed approach).

But certain baseline demonstrations might include a minimal level of education in a marketable skill (GEDs don’t count), reparations to victims and taxpayers, and community service on day-passes from jail (escaping while on leave would result in permanent lifer status).

In this world, everything you get is either a gift, earned, or stolen. Parole is a gift that soon breeds resentment. Stealing your way out of prison is not an option. That leaves earning it, a plan that deserves a trial.

Smith is a Bay Area writer and songwriter.

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