Redeeming Prisoners

by David Frum

The Hip Hop Republican site takes on a cause that ought to be of huge concern to conservatives: the American prison system.

In the 1990s, the US achieved amazing success against crime, in large part thanks to a new willingness to send more criminals to jail longer. "Incapacitation" is the technical term  for this strategy, and it worked. But incapacitation occurs at a huge human and financial cost. It's not cheap to lock up millions of people for long periods of years. Sooner or later, most of them do emerge - and what happens to them then?

Currently, approximately 2 out of every 3 former inmates return’ to prison within three years of release. Helping inmates find and sustain employment immediately after release diminishes their chances of recidivism. Working towards a reduction in recidivism is important because keeping offenders from re-entering the penal system means less crime and less tax dollars (which can be saved and/or reinvested by the tax payer).

Most of the aid that offenders receive are through public funds from the federal government and philanthropic organizations which donate monies to non-profits and state agencies to help defray re-entry costs. Ex-convicts are typically placed into low-wage jobs and often quit due to the patience required for delayed gratification through legal work and/or lack of familial support.

Past experience with rehabilitation programs has been disheartening. In the 1970s, it became conventional wisdom that "nothing works." I'm not going to quibble with the success in public safety achieved by incarceration. But if compassionate conservatism means anything, it should mean support for research and experimentation to discover if maybe after all there is something that might work even a little better than writing off as valueless the lives of 3 million fellow-Americans, disproportionately minority and especially disproportionately black.