The Myth of the Recidivist-Slacker

I wrote this piece before the recent events in Newtown and Sandy Hook but never posted it because I could not figure out a way to end the piece in a manner that was not shallow, preachy or both.  But despite its title and subject articles, the piece still seems timely in light of the tragedy that took place in Newtown.  I will admit that I have no more of an idea as to what we can do to change the status quo after the Newtown incident as I did before it took place.  However, I do know that the status quo is unsustainable and at this point any action is better than no action at all.

A recent essay published in The Crime Report, an online news source of all things crime-related, discusses the difficulties faced by ex-offenders in their collective inability to obtain gainful employment following their release from prison.  The essay is entitled Hiring Ex-Offenders: Time for a Different Approach and is written by William D. Burrel, who, according to a profile accompanying the essay,  “is an independent corrections management consultant specializing in community corrections and evidence-based practices.”

Mr. Burrel believes that employment programs which have been set up to help ease the transition of ex-offenders back into the free world are broken — a conclusion that, I am sure, is shared by many.  According to Mr. Burrel:

The lack of success with employment programs suggests to me that perhaps we are missing something crucial.

What is the answer to the offender– employment–recidivism conundrum? What are the relationships and correlations that we need to understand to create the right results?

As Moses says, “(T)he relationship between employment, job placement or assistance and crime desistance is more complicated than it appears.”

While I don’t have all the answers, it seems to me that part of the solution is a better understanding of what drives recidivism.

In their work on the psychology of criminal conduct, Andrews and Bonta identified “criminogenic risk factors” or drivers of criminal behavior.[iii] These factors lead people to commit crimes.

At the top of the list of these factors are anti-social, pro-criminal attitudes, values and beliefs. This means that offenders have a way of thinking, a world view and set of values that are sympathetic to and supportive of crime. The way they think about life, relationships, desires and decisions takes a different course than law-abiding citizens.

This mindset is generally not supportive of legitimate employment and the behaviors required to sustain it over the long term.

Contrast this with what George Jackson, the convict turned prison and political activist,  had written  in his now famous letters from prison — this one to his lawyer, Fay Stender:

I understand your attempt to isolate the set of localized circumstances that give to this particular prison’s problems of race is based on a desire to aid us right now, in the present crisis.  There are some changes that could be made right now that would alleviate some of the pressures inside this and other prisons.  But to get at the causes, you know, one would be forced to deal with questions at the very centre of Amerikan political and economic life, at the core of the Amerikan historical experience.  This prison didn’t come to exist where it does just by happenstance.  Those who inhabit it and feed off its existence are historical products.  The great majority of Soledad pigs [Jackson refers to prison officials and law enforcement generally as “pigs” – editor’s note] are southern migrants who couldn’t sell cars or insurance, and who couldn’t tolerate the discipline of the army.  And of course prisons attract sadists.  After one concedes that racism is stamped unalterably into the present nature of Amerikan sociopolitical and economic life in general (the definition of fascism is: a police state wherein the political ascendency is tied into and protects the interests of the upper class — characterized by militarism, racism, and imperialism), and concedes further that criminals and crime arise from material, economic, sociopolitical causes, we can then burn all of the criminology and penology libraries and direct our attention where it will do some good.

What Mr. Burrel, a nationally recognized expert in corrections, attributes to psychology, Jackson attributes to more systemic issues of economics, politics and culture.    The divergence in views couldn’t be greater.  But who is right?  I would suggest that, to some extent, they both are.

The individual does not, as Mr. Burrel would have us believe, exist in a vacuum.  Thus, when Mr. Burrel argues that psychology or “criminogenic risk factors” are the driving forces behind one’s desire or predisposition to commit criminal acts, he ignores that these risk factors are invariably the product of the environment in which one resides.  To suggest otherwise would be an exercise in eugenics.

By the same token, the individual is not a slave to his or her environment, at least in the psychological sense.  And in some cases, however rare they may be, individuals can prevail against the so-called criminal mentality even if their roots  can be found in one’s environment, or what Jackson described as society’s “material, economic and sociopolitical” problems.

None of this is terribly reassuring, of course.  At best, it results in a society of cynicism and inequality.  At worst, it leads to scenarios of violence and destruction, the worst of which we have seen unfold in places like Columbine, Virginia Tech, and more recently in Aurora and Wisconsin.

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