|© 2003 www.nebraskapen.org||Last Updated: 03/29/03|
When Corrections in America was first published in 1974, the American crimescape was significantly different from today. Politicians still fed off the public's fear of crime and their skepticism of the criminal justice system's ability to deal with crime. But they had not yet reached the stage of using terms like, "crises," "plague," and "disaster." Since that previous decade the number of incarcerated felons has risen ominously. The conventional wisdom of academicians, optimistic about the future of corrections, has now been endorsed by upper level state and federal officials. However, there were, and still are, a handful of outspoken critics who were convinced the criminal justice system lacked the means to effectively treat or appropriately punish those who violate the law.
The law evolved from our violent past. Progress in criminal codes can be traced through ancient societies. Babylonia, Sumeria, Greece, and Rome each had more elaborate codes than their predecessors. Often these punishments were simply harsh vengeance.
Does history repeat itself or reverse itself? In 1994, politicians seemed unanimous in supporting a war on crime. Every candidate vowed to pass legislation for stiffer penalties and longer sentences. There was little or discussion of the causes and effects of such policies.
A decade later things look different. Nebraska faces a fiscal deficit of over six hundred million dollars. Politicians and the public both question whether spending seventy three million dollars on a new prison in Tecumseh was a good choice. The question is being asked, is incarceration really necessary in all cases? Does long incarceration make some offenders worse criminals?
Some Nebraskans still cling to the ideas of the past. The current Parole Board believes that prison changes a person for the better. In "Hard Time," a February 10th, 2003, article in the Omaha World Herald, Parole Board Chairperson Linda Krutz was quoted as saying, "we could parole more offenders before their sentence expires to ensure supervision...," but then added, "this would remove an incentive to change." If getting out of prison sooner is not an incentive, the Parole Board must think offenders prefer prison to freedom (even supervised freedom). The Parole Board's belief is distorted.
Sensational press coverage also distorts perceptions of public safety. A single high profile violent crime can make people believe that releasing violent offenders threatens their safety. George Bush (the first) used Willie Horton to defeat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election. Willie Horton was a convicted murderer in Massachusetts who raped a woman while out on a weekend furlough. With one political ad Horton became the stereotype used to keep all violent offenders from being released. Even though the national average for these crimes is only 2.1% for rape and 1.2% for murder.
Recidivism does affect the public's safety. But the public is left ignorant of the real rates of recidivism. Without this knowledge it is easy to sell them the idea that denial of parole makes them safer. Thus, Linda Krutz tells the public, "community safety is still our primary concern." However, several criminal justice experts say that Nebraska's low parole rates don't create the most public safety for our tax dollars.
Denying parole creates a greater risk of unsupervised release. According to the Director of the International Association of Parole Boards, Gail Hughs, "Allowing them to come out unsupervised is poor public policy and runs in the face of public safety." Ed Birkel, Nebraska Chief of Probation, said, "Risk is always part of the ball game, but you can be smart about it. If you're never willing to take a risk, the alternative is to lock up for good everyone who runs afoul of the law." Harold Clarke, Director of Nebraska's Department of Correctional Services, admits, "There comes a time when even the violent offender is going to go out into the community. Do you want a gradual transition or do you just want to dump them out? I think we put the community at risk when we do the latter."
Longer prison sentences have no more power to change a person's life than a zebra can change it's stripes. The prison environment is not a civil society. For example, a Lincoln Journal Star article by Margaret Reist carried the headline, "Prison Officials in Tecumseh investigate a brawl that left eight people injured, including one inmate who was hospitalized overnight." Longer exposure to these conditions are more likely to make violent persons more violent and turn non-violent persons violent just to survive.
Those who serve long-term sentences often suffer "culture shock" when suddenly dropped back into the community. The prison environment causes them to loose touch with the society changing outside. A longer stay in this artificial environment does not necessarily give inmates an incentive to change to fit into society, but rather they change to better survive in prison. Thus keeping prisoners in custody longer does not change them for the better as Linda Krutz suggests. It may only make some offenders worse threats to society.
What are the real threats to society? There are more deaths due to drunken driving than there are murders. A November 22, 2002, article in the Omaha World Herald reported 17,448 drunken driving deaths in 2001, up from 16,572 in 1999. The 300 people getting killed every week in America by drunken drivers is greater than any other violent crime. What is the greater threat to society?
The Lincoln Police Department reports crime statistics to the FBI. Their reported numbers of crimes for 2000 and 2001 showed a significant difference between violent and non-violent crimes. In 2001, there were 13, 529, non-violent (property) crimes but only 1,253 violent crimes. Almost all of these violent crimes were "aggravated assaults (1,010). There was even a decrease of 14% from 2000 to 2001 in rape cases. There were over 11 thousand thefts in 2001, but only 151 robberies. The Lincoln Police Departments numbers show there were more than 10 times as many non-violent (property) crimes as violent crimes in 2001. So what are you more likely to be a victim of?
The U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics keeps track of recidivism. In their 1994 report they examined the recidivism rates of 272,111 offenders.
Non-violent crimes had the highest rates of recidivism. 78.8% of car thieves committed new crimes after prison; Larcenists (thieves): 74.6%; Burglars (breaking and entering): 74.0%; and those selling stolen property: 77.4%. In contrast, the most violent offenses had the lowest rates of recidivism. Only 1 .2% of those who served time for homicide were rearrested for homicide. 2.5% released on rape convictions were rearrested for another rape. The 272,111 offenders released in 1994 had another 744,000 charges within 3 years time.
The majority of crimes are committed by those who abuse drugs or alcohol. The Omaha World Herald reports that seventy-five to eighty-five percent of all the inmates entering the Nebraska prison system have a drug or alcohol abuse problem. And Nebraska's statistics show that 77% of all non-violent offenders will reoffend after release. It is assumed that those with drug or alcohol problems will have a higher likelihood of reoffending.
Drugs seem to lead to more serious offenses. One Nebraska man, injected with methamphetamine, was responsible for a two year old's death; December 20, 2002, Omaha World Herald. In one "non-violent" crime a woman used her young daughter as collateral in an undercover drug deal; "Mom who traded baby gets prison," Omaha World Herald, January 8th, 2003.
Statistics aside, offenders come in many types and should be treated accordingly. First time offenders who commit only the one offense for which they were apprehended and prosecuted are often "situational" offenders. They are unlikely to commit future crimes. Situational offenders may commit serious crimes or petty offenses. The situation they find themselves in creates the unique conditions leading to the criminal act. An argument between husband and wife over something trivial may lead to the death of one of the spouses. An argument between a convenience store clerk and a customer may lead to a petty or serious altercation, even death. Serious financial pressures or setbacks may prompt situational offenders to commit robbery or theft. Situational offenders seldom need rehabilitation or counseling. They respond favorably to authorities whether on probation or incarceration. It is difficult to prescribe specific treatments for them precisely because of their absence of a prior record or the uniqueness of their act. Experts consider some ot these situational offenders as good candidates for parole. They contribute unnecessarily to prison overcrowding.
The concept of community-based corrections has been gaining favor in recent years. The concept is often promoted as new and revolutionary. In reality, the concept or treating (or punishing) the offender is one of the oldest forms of social control. It is the concept of long-term imprisonment that is new. Long-term incarceration has only reduced the ex-offender's likelihood of successfully readjusting back into society. That costs society as much as it does the ex-offender.
Two Bills in the 2003 Legislative Session have been introduced to deal with this problem and the problem of prison overcrowding. Senator Brashear's LB 46 and Senator Pedersen's LB 455 create alternatives and special parole considerations for non-violent offenders. These will help but it does not address the real problem of protecting the public from repeat offenders as opposed to first time offenders. Even so, they are both a needed step in the right direction.
The problem of an increasing corrections cost during a time of record deficits is not within our school systems or our local governments. The problem is in the Parole Board's belief that longer prison sentences make us (society or offenders) safer. Legislative action will be necessary to change this policy and still insure both the public and offenders a safer future.