Rehabilitation as a humanist principle

There’s an interesting article in the NYT about former prisoners and the operation of what used to be termed “halfway houses.” Underlying the entire article is the assumption that we want our former prisoners to do well– to succeed upon release, to integrate back into the community– and that this is why these places exist. But clear, too, is that many either don’t think about it at all, or would actively “lock them up and throw away the key”– as attested by the fact that the house at issue is bare-bones in the extreme. These folks are operating their whole-hearted attempt at helping their fellows reintegrate on a shoestring, frayed along its length. It brought to mind an argument they were having on my favorite morning radio show– one exceptional for the lack of information with which they were arguing, and the narrow sights on which they were trained.

When I was a law clerk, our state enacted a law designed to “civilly commit” people who had been convicted of sex crimes, and who were about to be released from prison. Yep, let me say that again. They had done their time, under the sentence imposed by the judge within the range set by the Legislature. You know, the Legislature we the people elected? And some of these folks were being released early, again under a good behavior early parole scheme approved by the Legislature. However, the People were Shocked, Shocked! to discover the following: if you warehouse a sex offender in prison and make no attempt to educate him, counsel him, provide him with the therapy to allow him to learn to keep his illegal urges to himself, then, GASP!, he might do it again once you release him. Of course, rather than just institute a system-wide sex offender counseling program in the prisons, they enacted a whole new, more expensive system to make the public think they were concerned about public safety, and consume immeasurable time and money wending through even more court procedures. They would get the guy all ready for release, and then, oops, you’re maybe a sexually dangerous person, stay locked up for another 6-8 months while we pay off some state psychiatrist who’s looked at your records for 10 minutes to say you still have a “propensity” to commit sex crimes. Bull.Shit. This Misbegotten Abomination of a “Law” was upheld by some republican-appointed judges, and it stands today. And no one wants a sex offender in their neighborhood. But it’s easy to back track from sex offenders, folks. First it’s murderers, then it’s drunk drivers– all locked up indefinitely because they “might” do it again (even though the state doesn’t bother to quantify the likelihood, or be at all scientific about it.)

So tell me this– if no one wants a sex offender in their neighborhood, then where are they supposed to live? If everyone believes that every sex offender/murderer/batterer/drunk driver is incapable of remorse, of guilt, of change, then what is their incentive to work toward those goals, necessary to successful social reintegration? And, by paying attention to only the registered sex offenders, what lessons are we failing to teach our kids about being wise around all strangers, and about being wise about their own bodies, their own bravery? Or have you forgotten the stories you’ve heard about “it went on for years before they caught him?”

Jesus hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. He forgave a murderer, whilst suffering on the cross, beside him. Forgiveness, sternness, vigilance– do you think they can run together during the rehabilitative course?

Update:  You’ve left some great comments and asked some important questions, including the hard truth that there are some people who may not be interested in being rehabilitated.  I am more than willing to concede that there are some who won’t even try– but I remain concerned that we don’t even give people the chance to try and refuse, or fail.  And for the truly unreformable?  Well, let’s have some honesty in the sentencing process up front, rather than try to fix it at the back door, when people are being released early due to prison overcrowding, due in no small part to the (blah blah insert liberal bias here) war on non-violent offenders and marijuana possessors of less than a kilo.


12 thoughts on “Rehabilitation as a humanist principle

  1. Angelina

    If any criminal is not going to be allowed the tools to rehabilitate him/herself then no one can expect them to do so and it would be a lot more honest to just keep them locked up forever. I’m not saying I think they should be.

    I think if someone has done their sentenced time then no one should object to them being released and having a second (or third?) chance. But if we really want people to change and heal and learn to live with everyone else in society without engaging in harmful (to others) behaviors, then we need to give them therapy, give them tools for change.

    I wouldn’t be thrilled to have a known sex offender move in next door to me but I don’t think that automatically means my kid or myself is going to be in danger. If that offender was a pedophile I certainly wouldn’t let them spend time alone with my kid but I don’t think I’d feel the need to shun the person either.

    This is a very interesting and very important topic.

  2. molly

    We definitely need to do more rehabilitation in prison. The recitivism rate goes down drastically with serious rehabilitation, job training, etc.

    I always wonder the same thing when there is something on the news about a sex offender in the area. Where the heck are they supposed to live? And sometimes the offender is guilty of something that is not really problematic, like a 19 year old boyfriend having sex with his 17 year old girlfriend and being charged with statutory rape.
    But, on the other hand, I would be nervous about living next to an offender too.

  3. Michelle

    Wow this is a tough one for me. While I agree that prisons should do a better job at offering rehabilitation I have to be honest and say that I would not want to live next door to a sex offender either and I have to say that I am not sure I believe that everyone can rehabilitate from every crime. I am just not sure I want to take a chance.

    We do also have a responsibility to teach our children to be wary around all strangers and to share with someone if anyone ANYONE parent, friend, or anyone else is touching them or doing anything that makes them uncomfortable.

    I hope my opposing view does not upset you or your readers I am not trying to be antagonistic…just honest in my beliefs for me.

  4. mike golch

    great post and thought provoking.Yes rehab works,only it the person really wants to change.this being said,as a former corrections officer our jail was a revolving door the bozos kept comming and going.One even stated that being in jail is a rest stop,free meals and a free place to sleep and not worry about anything.and this is out of people that have been through rehab.
    I’m sorry that I’m such a skeptic.but as I said 15 years of seeing the same people comming and going.just sucks.

  5. nyjlm

    I think we want a lot of things that are mutually exclusive- we want to believe in rehabilitation, but we don’t want it to cost a lot. We want good schools, but we don’t want them to cost a lot. etc etc.
    As a parent, I can appreciate sex-offender lists. Yet as a citizen I wonder wtf are those folks supposed to do? The ones who have served their time? Does society just allow them to be run out of one neighborhood after another? Are there some neighborhoods that are more worthy of ‘safety’ from sex-offenders than others?
    I definitely don’t know the answers. I’m not sure we’re quite the enlightened democratic society that we like to imagine ourselves to be.

  6. Law School Hot Mama

    Interesting post . . . I think it’s SO true that in this country, you don’t just do your 12-18 months or whatever, you do your time for the rest of your life. You do it when you try to get a job. You do it when you try to find a place to live. So if there are several purposes of imprisonment, we seem to be really good at some of those purposes. Chiefly, protecting society from the person and punishing the person. But we’re decidedly shitty at rehabilitation.

    Moreover, in lots of situations (like juvenile delinquency and drug addiction) we imprison people who need therapy. Many delinquent girls are sexual assualt victims. So are many adult women who are incarcerated. We literally imprison rape victims because we don’t know what else to do with them and becuase the prison system is so underfunded.

    Ok, this is getting long, but I’ll wrap it up by saying that I think there has to be a better way. I’m not sure I have the answer to what the better way is, but it would start with more focus on the “rehabilitation” part an less on the “punishment” part for lots of these groups of people.

  7. rosie

    mmmminteresting. Can’t help feeling that more effort (money!) should be put into rehabilitation. The very process should reveal which offenders are more likely to reoffend…

  8. thordora

    I’ve always wondered what recidivism rates would look like if the jailed mentally ill TRULY received treatment. Awhile back I saw a piece on PBS I think on the subject, and it really reminded me to NOT commit any crimes.

    I was sexually abused, and while I’d like to know that someone is nearby, I also know that many crimes are crimes of opportunity, and I still have a responsibility to teach my children how to interact with strangers AND those we know. I do not believe in rehabilitation for those with sexual deviances. At this point, I feel it’s a sickness we can’t cure. The vengeful part of me wants genitalia cut off. The rational part knows it doesn’t help.

    BLah blah blah.

  9. Tom

    The issue that rehabilitation isn’t offered is less than half the issue. If it were offered and the offender was mandated to attend these classes or, for the sake of argument, wanted to attend these classes, the success rate for even those offenders that have attempted rehab is dismally low. Like, low single digit low. I understand the civil/ human rights issue of not wanting to punish the offender more than the courts originally sentenced them too, but it is my belief that it’s better that they are punished for a long time (because their victim is suffering for the rest of their lives) than to allow them to victimize another person or worse, a child.

    The other thing that I considered is that the two translations of the Bible that I have don’t say that Jesus was crucified with a murderer or that he forgave one while on the cross. One says that they were robbers, (NKJ) and the other just calls them criminals (NLT). Jesus was condemned to crucifixion by the people calling for the release of the murderer, Barrabbas. He did forgive one of the criminals while on the cross, but not out of some good feeling that he had about him, rather it was for the belief that the man had in Him as the Son of God.

    I will probably get totally flamed for having this opinion, but oh well.


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