When prisoners in the United States are released, they face an environment that is challenging and actively deters them from becoming productive members of society. Within three years of release, 67.8 percent of ex-offenders are rearrested and, within five years, 76.6 percent are rearrested.
Criminals are Criminals
Recidivism rates (or rates of repeat offending) are often used as a measure of effectiveness of prison systems and post-release offender management programs. What’s more, studies show that the general public believes - “once a criminal, always a criminal”. They see “ex-cons” as “criminals waiting to happen again.”
However, social workers engaged in the task of helping convicts re-enter society and live productive lives interpret recidivism statistics quite differently. They state, unequivocally, that recidivism rates remain high in the U.S. because when convicts are released into the general population, they are dropped back into the same circumstances that encouraged their life of crime in the first place.
What’s Really Going On
Social workers say that criminals are not born, they are made. Although responsible for their offenses, they are victims of the circumstances surrounding their efforts to survive. This is how some of us become criminals:
- Every innocent child starts its journey here on earth driven by the same impulse - to survive. This is the most basic of human instincts.
- Each infant’s daily challenge to survive takes place in a wide variety of circumstances.
- As an infant awakens each day, it finds itself formulating an instinctive survival plan based on the circumstances it is operating in.
- When circumstances encourage a person to survive by cooperating with society’s norms, that person becomes a good citizen.
- However, when circumstances bend a child’s survival conduct toward antisocial behavior that child inevitably becomes a criminal.
- Nonetheless, in order to protect itself, society must hold them responsible. Our criminal justice system is designed to do just that.
- However, in the process of protecting ourselves from criminal behavior, we put ex-convicts in circumstances that re-encourage criminal behavior for their own survival.
- After they have paid their debt to society, we have no choice but to turn them back into society where circumstances might well force them into criminal behavior to survive.
Case workers who labor to support ex-convicts trying to re-enter society know that their best hope of guiding ex-convicts away from continued criminal behavior is to try to alter the circumstances ex-convicts find when they emerge from incarceration. Case workers follow a carefully executed 8-step circumstance rehabilitation process:
- Identify prisoners’ personal strengths, such as education, employment history, and skills. Consider their assets, such as family relationships, social networks, spiritual maturity, and undeveloped talents. Review their needs, such as: the need for treatment of addictions, health problems, and so forth, then use this inventory (and add to it) in helping prisoners prepare realistic plans for returning to society.
- Help prisoners make realistic plans for the first twenty-four hours of release.
- Help them identify friends, family members, locations, and circumstances likely to draw them into trouble, and develop strategies to avoid them.
- Identify volunteers or family members to serve as mentors.
- Rebuild and repair relationships between prisoners and their families.
- Connect offenders with communities of support that can sustain ex- prisoners during their transition. Faith communities can serve this role well.
- Help prisoners who need it to find treatment for mental illnesses, addictions, medical conditions, and so forth.
- Enlist skilled facilitators to guide restorative meetings with victims for discussing how to make amends and rebuild damaged relationships.
There is no doubt that circumstances affect survival behavior. Statistics show that when case workers are able to execute the 8-step program described above, offenders’ recidivism rates decline dramatically.