Why States Should Legislate Prisoner Rehabilitation

By: Timothy D. Murphy, CP/LA

According to the Data on Recidivism report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the U.S. recidivism rate has rapidly increased over the last several years. From its 5 years follow up report, BJS discovered that out of 404,638 prisoners released from U.S. prisons in 2005, 67.8% were re-arrested within 3 years of release. Furthermore, within. 5 years of release, 76.6% of released state prisoners were rearrested. The BJS report also revealed that 49.7% of arrests made within 3 years of release resulted in imprisonment for new crimes, and that percentage rose to 55.1% within 5 years of release.

Additionally, the National Institute of Justice reported that rearrested prisoners continue to make up a large percentage of the overall arrest rate made each year. For these very reasons many criminologists have concluded that the Correctional system’s failure to rehabilitate prisoners have increased the number of innocent people becoming victims of the unreformed released citizens.

Given the dismal statistics, it appears quite evident the “Tough on Crime and Criminals” mentality has just not worked. Indeed, this continued purely punitive practice has served only to bolster already high recidivism rates. Consequently, when the prison system’s failure to rehabilitate the prisoners it releases, threatens the safety and welfare of all citizens, should change be made? And, is there a workable solution to the increasing recidivism rate? The answer to both questions is “Yes”. Legislating mandatory rehabilitation for all state prisoners is the most viable solution to reducing the recidivism rate.

But of course, the crucial issue is how the operationalize and define “rehabilitation” itself. Rehabilitation can encompass a variety of programs, including vocational training, educational services & programs meant to address and curb addictions. One definition conceptualizes rehabilitation in a broad way, explaining that rehabilitation is “an effort to remedy a vast array of personal and social problems experienced by some of society’s most disadvantaged members.” In this way, rehabilitation is viewed as programs and services provided with the aim of aiding personal improvement and reintegration into society.

Rehabilitation, as a mandatory correctional objective, is noteworthy because studies indicate that rehabilitating prisoners is significantly linked to lower recidivism rates. Citizens who have been rehabilitated during imprisonment were reported to reintegrate and adopt crime-free lives upon release. This successful reintegration is possible because the entire process of rehabilitation encompasses a variety of methods to correct, reeducate, and restore an offending citizen’s defective thought process and behaviours; sending them back to their communities as pro-social thinking assets rather than embittered ex-convicts likely to continue the cycle of victimization.

In fact, studies suggest that rehabilitated prisoners that have undergone cognitive behavioural programs are more likely to be law-abiding citizens upon their release. Furthermore, the American Correctional Association has declared that a prison system’s focus on rehabilitation is the only way to effectively honour its duty to shielding society from. future crimes.
Correspondingly, it is vital to the success of a prisoner’s reintegration that rehabilitative programs are integrated into the daily prison routines and extended beyond imprisonment. This allows cognitive behavioural program administrators to support and assist released citizens with overcoming obstacles to reentry. This concept can be more fully understood by examining the prisons systems of Nordic countries (i.e. Norway, Denmark, Finland). Nordic prisons are successful in deterring future criminal behaviour through the implementation of rehabilitation programs in prisoners’ daily routines. As a result, Nordic counties have much lower recidivism rates when compared to the United States.
Of the many aims of “punishment”, intended by imprisonment, which includes retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, condemnation, and rehabilitation only the latter actually serves to improve the lives of imprisoned citizens, helping them to succeed upon reentering society.
For example, there is evidence that education programs and vocational training for prisoners can increase job market success following imprisonment and reduce the chance that returning citizens will end up back in prison. Prisoner services addressing mental health or substance abuse can potentially reduce recidivism as well.

Taking this premise as true — — that rehabilitation improves the lives of imprisoned citizens — — logic dictates that the best way to promote prisoner rehabilitation is by establishing a right to rehabilitation; additionally, the most important justification for the right to rehabilitation should be grounded in the dignity of prisoners as citizens who have committed crimes and are worthy restoration, redemption and rehabilitation.

Given these various justifications for why states should legislate prisoner rehabilitation — — cost-benefit analysis, the dignity of prison staff/society, dignity of prisoners, and the non-degradation of prisoners — — the most compelling justification of the right to rehabilitation is the dignity of offending citizens (i.e. prisoners) themselves. Grounding rehabilitation in the dignity of prisoners creates stronger support for a positive, constant right to rehabilitation than any other justification of rehabilitation. When dignity explicitly underpins rehabilitative policy, it encourages prison officials and politicians to give more attention to the inherent worth and moral capacity of offending citizens while making decisions about the provision of rehabilitative services; in turn, the focus on prisoner’s moral worth helps ensure that rehabilitation is conceived of as a right afforded to prisoners.

Taking the premise even further, having an actual right to rehabilitation — — a right rooted in dignity — — is preferable to penal facilities merely providing services without stating that prisoners have a right to those services. This is true because an actual right to this rehabilitation can trump other insubstantial penological concerns that likely could otherwise infringe on the level and/or quality of rehabilitation provided, such as overall effectiveness of the rehabilitation, governmental interests, paternalistic micro-level concerns, etc. Such other concerns can easily shift from encouraging rehabilitation in some situations to discouraging it in others; conversely, a legislative right to rehabilitation is unwavering in its mandate that rehabilitative services must be provided.

In contrast, the other reasons for prisoner rehabilitation do not advance rehabilitation to its fullest potential. For example, the non-degradation merely ensures that the prisoners do not deteriorate while imprisoned, rather than encouraging their improvement beyond their current state as the dignitarian reason does. Thus, the non-degradation motivation comparatively falls short in the line of services, and personal betterment of prisoners that entails micro-level analysis and cost-benefit rationales do not promote an unqualified right to rehabilitation, as the level of services is tied to data and measures of effectiveness.
Additionally, the current focus of dignity of prison staff and the larger society unhelpfully shifts attention away from the recipients of services and the actual prison environment; which makes it more likely to lose sight of the importance of prisoner rehabilitation in favour of other concerns in the case of society in general.

In short, when the dignity of individuals other than prisoners is the focus or justification for rehabilitation, then the rehabilitation is only a priority to the extent that other issues do not detract attention from the primary goal of rehabilitating the prisoners and returning them to their communities as reformed citizens.

Knowing for sure how the causation between human dignity and rehabilitation actually works may not be quantifiable in terms of statistics until it is actually put into widespread use within various prison settings. However, until state legislators are willing to take the position that we (i.e., society at large) value human dignity of all citizens, and moves to make rehabilitation a legal obligation of prison systems, the current trend of increasing recidivism rates is likely to continue unabated by the current ineffectual reentry programs available to those prisoners nearing definite release.

To be sure, in the State of Michigan prisoners nearing parole are given a 6 to a 12-month crash course in prisoner reentry by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) through the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative program. This reentry program is the functional equivalent of a 4-year college student spending all of his time doing things other than studying and then cramming for his midterms and final exams. He is likely to pass the exams, but the chances he will retain the material and put it to use in the real world is quite unlikely. True rehabilitation has to start from day 1; the moment an offending citizen enters the prison system up until, and even after, the prisoner reenters society. For rehabilitation to be truly effective it has to become a learned, patterned behaviour of the prisoner; something the prisoner routinely does. And the only way state prison systems will ever implement such rehabilitation is if state legislators take that bold step in the right direction to make rehabilitation mandatory. To make rehabilitation a legal right, prisons must provide; not just for prisoner’s futures, but for the future of all citizens.

Rot man, “Do Criminal Offenders Have a Constitutional Right to Rehabilitation?” 77 J. Crim, L. Criminology 1023, 1026 (1986);

James Q. Whitman, “Harsh Justice: Criminal Punishment and The Widening Divide Between America and Europe 38 (2003);

Council of State Gov’ts, Report on the Re-Entry Policy Counsel: “Charting the Safe and Successful Return of Prisoners to the Community” 213 (2005);

Durose, M. R., Cooper, A. D., & Snyder, H. N., (2014, April). “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010.” Retrieved from Bureau of Justice Statistics: www.bjs.org/content/pub/PDF/rpts05p0510.PDF.

Petersilia J. (2001, October), “Beyond the Prison Bubble”. Retrieved from the Institute of Justice: www.nij.gov/journals/268/pages/pages/prison-bubble.asp

National Lifers of America
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