The Social Safety Problem

Yeah, yeah, criminals “deserve” this and they “deserve” that. But if we can put aside the question about what criminals “deserve” for a moment, we might be able to find our way out of the mind-set that says: if it didn’t work last, or year the year before that, or the year before that, then, by all means, let’s try it again next year!

I mean, America, the land of the free, is now the most incareration-happy nation in the world. And I don’t feel any safer. Do you?

Yes, there are people who are truly dangerous to others and who need to be kept away from free society. Perhaps some of them are beyond redemption, although it would be a moral and intellectual mistake to equate our ignorance about criminal motive with “beyond redemption.”

The fact remains: the majority of criminals behind bars in American prisons today are non-violent offenders and, even those doing time for various forms of assault or theft, will eventually be released. You certainly don’t have to be a penologist to understand the short-sightedness of inflicting “punishment” on the majority of the prison population and then, having made a bad sitation worse, turn them loose in a “free” society.

If you’ve got enough money, you can afford to live in a private, gated-community or hire body guards. The nation’s top political executives have the secret service and/or ac-cess to security measures ordinary Americans don’t.

The point is if prisons make people with bad problems worse, then it’s ordinary Americans who are made to shoulder the burden of the “crime problem,” or what is bet-ter termed the “social safety problem,” to borrow Karl Menninger’s apt phrase.

And we all know that most criminals are never caught and that, even in a nation with an incarceration rate as high as ours, the convicts filling our prisons are those who were either stupid, blatant, poor or unlucky enough to get caught. To “punish” this minority of criminals as a social lesson for the rest of us is not only a pathological hypocrisy, it’s a winning formula for ensuring there will be many more crime victims in the future when those prisoners are released, morally marginalized with no sense of purpose or skills.

It’s kind of like apprehending a pit bull who has been terrorizing a neighborhood and, knowing ahead of time that the dog will be released sooner than later, instead of giving the animal the training it needs to be a good doggie, we beat the hell out of the canine convict because he “deserves” it. Then, somehow, imagine the dog has learned his lesson.

Of course, “law-abiding” citizens will be outraged when it is reported that the pit bull went back to the same neighborhood and continues to maul unwitting victims, having been made meaner than he was before he was captured.

All this was swirling around my head a few weeks ago when I came across this inter-esting website, called the Global Ideas Bank (www.globalideasbank.org). Essentially, “it is a global suggestion box for socially innovative non-technological ideas and projects.”

It’s an archive of ideas from around the world, addressing problems ranging from housing to war and peace to crime and the law. Some of the ideas are silly and some are interesting.

Here’s a few highlights as it pertains to criminal justice (if that’s not an oxymoron).

Stan Hayward of London suggests: “It is commonly said that jails are ‘universities of crime’ where criminals learn their trade. Part of their punishment could be to each the police their trade as well. Each prisoner could write or record all the events leading up the their crime, how and why they committed the crime, and what might have been done to prevent them from doing it.” Imagine that: convict crime consultants.

What if some form of that idea was coupled with one suggested by Hans-Peter Voss, a physicist at the University of Applied Sciences in Karlsruhe, Germany. “Inmates should be paid for the (consulting?) work they do in prison, with some of the money kept by the government and paid out over several years on condition that the former convict not commit any further crimes. The longer people have been inmates, the more money they will have accumalated and the stronger their desire will be not to fall back into crime.”

Another prison work idea comes by way of Roger Knights of the Institute for Socieal Inventions. “Pilot Dogs, a company which trains dogs for the blind in Colombus, Ohio, has placed the potential guide dogs in the care of five inmates with life-long experience of living with animals. The dogs stay with the inmates from 8 am until 9 pm and are then housed in kennels. The inmates feed them, groom them and clean up after them.

“‘This is the best program this institute has ever had,’ one of the prisoners says. ‘It gives you something to look forward to each day.’”

The next one comes from a Seattle Times article by Woody Baird. “Since his election to the criminal court in 1990, Joe B. Brown has built a reputation as a tough, street-wise judge willing to try new ways to sentence criminals. He has ordered several burglars to open their homes to former victims. With deputies in tow, they can take what they want, up to a limit set by Brown that approximates the value of what they lost.

“‘He learns what a good citizen feels like, worrying whether he’s going to come home and find all his stuff there,’” Brown said. “One victim made several visits before he was satisfied: ‘The first day he didn’t find anything, but the second time he came back, he bagged a color television and a stereo-component set.’

These ideas aren’t flawless or applicable to every situation but they spark the creative imagination we need to deal with the “social safety problem” – a problem that we can’t incarcerate our way out of.

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