In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, David Cole looks at three books about reforming prisons in America, including Anthony Thompson’s Releasing Prisoners, Redeeming Communities: Reentry, Race, and Politics
How do we escape the self-defeating cycle of crime and punishment? Anthony Thompson suggests that we focus on the neediest—the 700,000 or so prisoners who are released each year. Before the incarceration boom, the avowed purpose of criminal sentencing in America was rehabilitation. Prison sentences were often open-ended, with the idea being that a successful course of rehabilitation would warrant an earlier release. In the 1970s, however, the nation began to sour on rehabilitation, and over the next two decades state and federal authorities eliminated most efforts to educate, train, and counsel prisoners with a view toward preparing them for their return to society.
Thompson argues that when 700,000 prisoners are being released each year, we ignore at our peril their reintegration into our society. A stable home, job, and health are strong predictors of law-abiding behavior. But incarceration makes stability much more difficult to obtain in all these respects. Public housing laws often bar offenders, and private landlords routinely discriminate against them. Federal and state laws broadly prohibit ex-offenders from hundreds of jobs, often without any rational justification, and even where no bar exists, private employers are less than eager to hire them. Prisoners who enter prison without physical and mental illnesses often develop them while inside. Yet as Thompson demonstrates, society does virtually nothing to help ex-offenders find homes, jobs, or health care—thereby virtually guaranteeing a cycle of recidivism.
Thompson proposes a variety of sensible reforms—eliminating laws that irrationally bar ex-offenders from jobs and housing, providing health care and counseling to help smooth the transition back to life outside of prison. But the question he leaves unanswered is the most difficult one: Where is the political impetus for such reform? If Americans are skeptical about the government providing health insurance for the law-abiding, what is going to make them support it for ex-offenders? And if we do not invest in sufficient job training or public housing for those who have never been imprisoned, why would we do so for those who have violated criminal laws?