Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Let 'em break rocks?

I get a lot of e-mail from publicists, and in case you're one of them and you're thinking of sending me some, let me tell you it's pretty tough to make it to the show here. However, the Restorative Justice Community makes the cut. They're trying to use web-based tools to build networks and provide resources to support ex-offender re-entry. Here's something I wrote about the subject a few years back:

Substance abuse is closely associated with recidivism. For example, 39% of jail inmates with first-time convictions have regular drug use histories, compared to 61% of those with two prior convictions. The majority of jail and state prison inmates have been regular drug users, and this group tends to have a history of unemployment, limited formal education, and to have associations with people who also abuse drugs and commit crimes. These factors all pose challenges for successful reintegration and prevention of recidivism. It has been shown that substance abuse treatment can be effective in reducing recidivism.

However, according to a CSAT consensus panel, “Release presents offenders with a difficult transition from the structured environment of the prison or jail. . . . Many offenders are released with no place to live, no job, and without family or social supports. They often lack the knowledge and skills to access available resources for adjustment to life on the outside.” Hence the early release period is one of particular vulnerability to relapse. Substance abuse treatment becomes more effective with continuity and duration. For released offenders, treatment is much more likely to succeed if it is integrated with other essential rehabilitative services including education, job skills development, housing, family counseling, etc. However, service systems are generally fragmented and linkages between the institution and post-release services tend to be weak.

Transporting inmates back to the community and receiving referrals from probation and parole on the very day of release are critical to an offender’s success in establishing a law-abiding life. Most offenders will live within five miles of where they lived before being incarcerated, retaining in most cases the same associations they had previously. Many inmates also have untreated, and often undiagnosed, mental illnesses, and they disproportionately suffer from physical illnesses including HIV and hepatitis C infection, which are associated with injection drug use.

As I assume y'all know already, we incarcerate a higher percentage of our population than any other (putatively) democratic country, and the vast majority of them are not violent criminals but the unfortunate sorts of people I describe above, who suffer from substance use disorders and just haven't managed to build successful lives. Locking them up does none of us any good, and dumping them back on the street without a plan to get them a life just makes matters worse.

While I commend the RJC, private efforts are not enough. We need a radically transformed public policy approach to addiction, drug trafficking, and the troubled and thwarted people among us. I won't even get started on the racist nature of the system -- white people who are caught with drugs get treatment, Black and Latino people go to jail. One more item for your long, long list President Obama.

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