Ending Violent Crime

Introduction | Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Epilogue


Crime and Punishment

Crime and punishment.  We don't need to be persuaded that there is an immense problem in this area at this time.  It is a problem on every continent, in every nation.  The United States, supposedly the model to the world of the good and successful society, has more people per capita in prisons and jails than any other nation on earth, well over a million people, and prison populations here and everywhere continue to grow.  Prison facilities are all overcrowded, there is a boom in prison construction, the most expanding employment opportunity today is that of prison guard, and politicians are demanding longer and mandatory sentences for criminals.  There is a strong movement now to try juvenile perpetrators of violent crimes as adults.

The fact that all of this is not working doesn't seem to initiate any new thinking on this subject.  Twenty years of tougher incarceration policies have not been the answer.  The prison population in the US doubled from 1981-1991, and has doubled again in the past five years.  Currently it is costing the American taxpayers over $16 billion a year to keep offenders behind bars.  Perhaps that would seem acceptable if those offenders were then rehabilitated and were no more a problem to society.  But the rate of recidivism, of released prisoners being incarcerated again for another crime, is discouragingly high, often as much as 85% for first-time offenders and young people.  Crime continues to be on the rise, and especially among young people.  The only time prison seems to be effective is with middle-aged offenders who have spent most of their lives behind bars. 

Since it costs around $25-30,000 a year to keep a person incarcerated, it doesn't seem very cost-effective to need 20 or 30 years to rehabilitate an offender.  Incarceration has taken a big bite out of state budgets with little effect on crime rates.  "Imprisonment is the sort of thing where the policies and cost of the policies don't come to the table at the same time," said Alfred Blumstein, dean of the School of Urban and Public Affairs at Carnegie Mellon University.  "The response to the heinous crime of the month continues to be a vigorous, chest-pounding punitive response," he said, but "there is a growing awareness that we cannot keep this up forever."

The Sentencing Project, a non-profit research organization, reports that "Large-scale imprisonment provides no panacea for crime.  The wealthiest society in the world has failed to provide a relatively safe society."  The proportion of minorities in prison is wildly out of proportion with that of the population as a whole.  Nearly half a million black men are incarcerated in the United States, four times the rate of incarceration of South Africa.  As Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree says, "The United States should be embarrassed by this report as an indictment of a civilized nation.  The fact that we are spending $7 billion a year to incarcerate black males and less than 10 percent of that amount educating black males is a clear indication we have our priorities backward." 

US murder rates are over 7 times higher than those of Europe.  No other nation comes close in the amount of violent crime and murder.  The American murder rate is 10.5 per 100,000 people compared with 0.8 for Great Britain and 1.0 for Japan.  Other nations regard the US as a culture that celebrates violence and freedom from gun-control.

There are other complications of this problem.  Lawmakers are asking for minimum mandatory sentences, taking the ability to decide each case on its merits out of the hands of the judges and treating all offenders the same, regardless of circumstances.  At the same time there is a reluctance to release prisoners who are not considered dangerous to make room for others who are a considerable threat to society.  In addition to the fact of more inmates serving longer sentences, governments are prosecuting and punishing by incarceration crimes such as drug use, drunk driving, sexual crimes and assault, which are more effectively handled by other treatment programs, and taking up prison space needed for more dangerous criminals.  Almost half the inmates in the federal prisons are there for drug-related offenses, but more than half of those receive no treatment in prison.  Less than half of all prisoners are doing time for crimes against persons, but there are almost no programs that effectively address the causes that led these perpetrators to commit these crimes.


Crime is one of the subjects of most concern to the public in America today, but neither the law enforcement and corrections sector nor the social scientists have come up with programs that really work, so there seems to be no alternative but to clamor for more of the same approach that is not working.  A little like saying if your present medicine is not effective, then you should keep taking more of it until it works.  Very few people are even bothering to question why our correctional system is not correctional.

The problem is, thinking instead of just reacting might require opening ourselves to ideas that question our cherished beliefs about human nature.  It's easier just to go on doing what society has been doing for hundreds of years.  Break the law, get locked way.  Then the public can forget about it.  We hope that we can apprehend all the wrong-doers, put them away out of sight, and then hope that some magic occurs to justify the term "Corrections."  As soon as the offender is apprehended, tried and sentenced, then we all can breathe easy.  The offender is "off the streets" and we are safe from him.  So forget him, we have more pressing matters.  There are other felons to be apprehended, tried and sent away.  Our prisons are filled?  Build more.  Ex-convicts are returning to crime?  Three strikes and we put him away forever.  Problem solved.  Let the Department of Corrections handle it. 

Never mind that the threat of prison is no deterrent for the increasing numbers of young people committing crimes.  Never mind that when young offenders are imprisoned it's like sending them to crime university where they can learn their vocation better.  Never mind that there are few meaningful programs or incentives for them in prison.  Never mind that the word "Corrections" is a misnomer and rehabilitation a joke.  Never mind that we are paying for their room and board at the yearly rate it takes to send our kids to college.  Never mind that there are almost no programs to help an ex-convict find his way back into society, that the case-loads of parole officers are too large to afford effective monitoring ad assistance.  Even if the prisoner is related to us, and it seems it will not be long before everyone in America knows someone in prison, we want to forget him.  We are embarrassed when his name comes up. 


Okay.  We could go on with this litany on crime and punishment, but I think that's enough to remind us of the enormity of the problem.  Enough perhaps to make us stop and take our heads out of the sand and address ourselves to it.  Crime, most particularly violence, robbery, and the selling of drugs, is materially affecting all of our lives.  We are living more and more in a state of fear, anger, and confusion.  Surely there must be a solution if we all just put our minds together on this.


Well, the good news is that in fact there are solutions.  The reason I am writing this is to let you know that I have been involved with one solution for twelve years, and it is working.  It is working better than any other program I have heard of, and I believe I understand why it works so well.  Now it is time to let all people know there is indeed hope for our suffering society.

There is one sacrifice we must make to make any solution work.  W have to give up very ancient notions of punishment.  We have to give up vengeance and retribution.  They have their satisfactions, and they aren't easy to let go of.  But if we are seriously interested in a solution, if we really want to compensate victims, rehabilitate perpetrators and reduce violent crime, then we need to leave our emotional desire for revenge and look at the issue practically and realistically.  The fact is that punishment neither deters nor rehabilitates.  The notion that it does is based on thinking that these offenders are rational beings who made a conscious choice to commit criminal acts and could now just as easily make a conscious choice not to.  That is simplistic and fuzzy thinking that has nothing to do with the reality. 

How can we expect to take a man who has never learned anywhere in his life how he can be a full human being, who has been convicted of some inhuman act and incarcerated, then treat him  like a non-human being, often with just as inhuman treatment as he has always received and learned how to return, for a given number of years, and then open the gate and return him to society saying, "Go and from now on act like a human being." 

A few things we have learned in this program, and one is that to help a human-being change and become human, the use of shaming and ill treatment is counter-productive.  Shame is not helpful.  Pride, self-respect, hope - those are effective and productive in helping someone to his full humanity.


So I want to tell you about our prison program, describe to you how it works, and offer my thinking about why it works.  Then I would like to suggest some possibilities for adapting this program so that it could be expanded and made suitable for all correctional institutions everywhere in the world.  What I am presenting here is not theory, it is fact - a thoroughly effective program that has proved itself.  Against a general recidivism rate that runs 65-85%, the rate of people in our program who revert to criminal activities runs currently between 5 and 10 %, and I feel sure that if we had the organization and funds to have a post-release program in place for these men we would be able to bring that rate down to next to zero.

We are not talking here about early parole, work release, privatization of prisons, boot camp tactics, truth in sentencing or mandatory sentences, such as three strikes and you're out.  One of the problems with all of these is that they are all geared for mass production.  Only individual human attention can reach inside individual human beings for the kind of complete life-change that is needed.  Too often we hear of paroled offenders who immediately go out and perpetrate another crime.  The reason is that the parole boards are not able to have a thorough individual knowledge of the real mental-emotional state of the applicant.  In this program the groups are small and each person becomes completely known to the others, including the presenters.  Because of the depth and intimacy of the group, if you are being dishonest or hiding that will be apparent.

But another wonderful aspect of this program is that it is so inexpensive.  For a very small expenditure society can relieve itself of billions of dollars of expenses in property loss and medical expenses of victims, as well as law enforcement, legal and correctional expenses.  For example, I am at the moment serving between 120-150 inmates in seven state prisons, and making occasional visits to other prisons.  My travel expenses amount to about $100 a week.  As my program is not funded by any organization or government I work to raise those expenses myself.  If there was an organization funding this work and I could just work full-time on a small salary, I could probably carry on bi-weekly programs for up to one thousand inmates.  In the seven institutions I serve there are probably ten thousand prisoners, so about ten of me could make this program available to every inmate.  We could work with volunteers - a prison peace-corps, or we could use existing or new correctional staff.  The training would be profound and intensive, but not necessarily expensive.  This isn't an overnight miracle, so results would be noticed soon for only a few of the participants, for many more after some months, for some it could take years.  That is my experience so far in this program.  I haven't found anyone who could not be reached, provided we had enough time.

In this book I will describe the program and various processes we have been using which have proved so successful.  It must be emphasized that what we are talking about here are processes which really work, which have reclaimed the humanity of its participants, taught them skills to deal with stress, conflict and other problems of living, to meet new situations with an open mind an flexible thinking, to enhance hopefulness and love in themselves and in their relationships, and to find fulfillment in service to others and to the earth and all life.  We are talking about taking this process and making it available to every inmate of every penal institution in the world, and to every released or paroled offender, and to every person at risk of being caught up in a life of drugs and crime.  We can teach people to do what we do easily and inexpensively.  The training required is intensive and thorough, but it is relatively brief: 30-60 hours spread over a few weeks, with periodic check-ups after that or perhaps three hours a month.

We want to take this further, to create half-way houses run by ex-convict graduates of the program who would continue this work on the outside, giving people being released support, temporary residence, and a gradual re-entry into society.  These places would have ex-con-owned businesses that could employ some and employment services to find work for others.  Certain qualified participants in the programs would help provide them in penal institutions, and for young people in youth organizations, schools, and on the streets.

What I will describe in this book is a program that if expanded in ways that I can easily envision could eventually put an end to crime in our time.  An end to crime?  Is that possible?  Haven't we always had crime?

Well, no, actually.  Most of you reading this are educated about the history of your civilization, and I will concede that in that civilization crime has probably been around for a long time.  But four hundred years ago, before civilization came to this part of the world, crime was unknown on the North American continent.  There were no prisons here, and no need for them.  We had no criminal class, no people living a life of theft or violation of others.  The human errors which anyone might commit could be settled in the community by agreements to make reparations.

There are complex reasons why there was no crime on this continent until it was imported from Europe, which I will briefly describe further along in the book.  And it is no doubt true that crime will not be really eliminated until the whole of this society is transformed in some very basic ways.  But as I consider the possibilities the expansion of a program like this could engender, I can envision just such a transformation.  And the main agents and aids to that transformation would be ex-prisoners who have themselves been transformed, who know crime from the inside and this society from its bottom, and have learned how to help themselves and other victims.

What I want to offer for your consideration in this book is the description of a program that, in its limited application for the past 14 years, has been found to work in an area which is of greatest concern to all of us and in which the other things we have been doing as a society have not been working.  I won't claim with any kind of certainty that the expansion of this program will prove to be a panacea for the ills of a society riddled with drugs and violence, but I will say that possibility definitely exists, and I for one would love to see this dream adopted and explored by others to see just how far it could go.
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