Reducing Crime and Keeping YOUR Kids out of Trouble
By: J. Marlando
Certainly every child develops his or her own personality and personality is a result of life’s experiences. The idea that children are the mere result of genetic dictates is absurd to me. For example, our prisons are not overflowing because everyone behind bars was given the DNA of a thief or an evil-doer. As a writer, I have worked with ex-inmates either personally or through interviews. Most—not all but most—of the repeat offenders were not nurtured as youngsters; weren’t loved. No, I am not excusing bad or dishonest behavior, I am merely saying that a parent’s attentiveness counts when it comes to the development of their children’s personalities. A child’s stability is also part of the building blocks that structures a child’s self-esteem but of his or her worldview as well. I.Q. plays a heavy role too—a great many criminals have little foresight or even forethought; they are impulsive and basically non- calculative. For example, how many times do we see a car chase on TV and wonder where the “escapee” thinks he is going…by all measure of even common sense he or she cannot avoid arrest and is risking a stiffer sentence for his or her useless attempt to “outrun” the police.
We are always grateful to know that is not our child or someone we care about.Speaking of media, television and video game producers claim that violence in their mediums has had no influence on kids who go out and shoot up their classrooms or commit some other violent crime. Yet, the average child has witnesses at least 8,000 TV murders by the time he is eighteen. In this regard, *Michael P. Ghiglieri reports that, “As early as 1972, a ten year study concluded that ‘the amount of television violence viewed by boys at age 9 was the best single predictor of Juvenile delinquency offenses related to aggression at age 19.”
I am sure that these rather startling findings change depending on home life quite possibly going back to the crib. That is, children who are raised with love and care are far less likely to commit a crime as a child who has never received much nurturing. Yet, another point of view is that if television violence actually stirred violent behavior we would have a world of Al Capones to deal with. Nevertheless, what needs to be acknowledged is that a child that has a tendency toward violence, all those killings and robberies he sees on media can serve to further desensitize him to cruel acts.
Enough, however, about youngsters who end up in serious trouble although I am convinced, with few exceptions, that the “serious” trouble some children find themselves in could have been avoided with loving attentiveness before a change in personality occurred. That is, before the child began believing in his own “badness.”
In any case, to ask what “comes first,” the criminal act or the criminal mind has always been a chicken and egg question. Most certainly psychologists would have a different answer than most biologists and my own answer is probably different than either in those categories. So complex is this question on the other hand that not even educators can agree on an answer. My own offering is that the criminal “act” creates the criminal “mind” in that our brains cannot clearly distinguish between what we fantasize and what we actually do as being real. If I imagine myself robbing a liquor store at gunpoint and being a “tough guy,” my brain will absorb those thoughts as reality and eventually start believing that I am as cold and cruel as I’ve imagined myself to be. As a result my mind might become immune to the guilt, shame and sorrow that occur for most of us when we hurt others or commit wrong doing of any kind. That is, I have simply become the manifestation of the heartless person I’ve been in my mind’s eye.
It is important to realize here that “brainwashing” is not only accomplished by people outside ourselves but can be self-imposed as well. Sniper training in the military works on a training system in that the trainee convinces himself that he is “right” for the job and is desensitized to the acts the job demands. The criminal on the street has also gone through a “desensitization period” that is similar to this. In many cases the criminal on the street may simply be saying to him or herself I am as “bad,” “unlovable,” “worthless” and “useless” as the significant others in my life treat me and say that I am. This negative acknowledgement can occur for even a very young child who has never known love or has been nurtured by loving attentiveness in his or her life.
When this person ends up in prison (which is more likely than not) this negative self-analysis is then given affirmation by the system that he or she has been condemned to. It symbolizes the verbiage that says: You are a worthless human being that needs to be caged.
As a result the hardened and bitter individual becomes harder and more bitter in the prison environment—in many instances the petty thief becomes a master thief through education given him or her by more experienced inmates; the dope smoker often becomes the dope dealer between time-served and release.
Most certainly, there is not a penal system employee at any level that would make the claim that prison is about rehabilitation—prison is about punishment and containment; money, politics and social engineering. Actually our most modern prisons are not a far cry from Dark Age dungeons in terms of treatment of prisoners—the holding facilities have improved but the inhumaneness has remained about the same.
So with all this in mind, how the heck do we reduce crime and make positive changes?
What we need to understand about our own incarceration methods is that our overflowing prisons are not overflowing with dangerous, violent criminals. Not that dangerous, violent criminals do not make up some of the prison population but we are also imprisoning our mentally ill and, in effect, our poor. And, we have a list of consensual crimes that a great many people are “doing time” for. Consensual crimes are those that break some law but are NOT criminal acts in that they have no victims. They are exactly what most Americans claim they object to: big brother (saving the individual from himself) laws that incarcerate hundreds of thousands each year for the crime of pursuing one’s own happiness.
Speaking of numbers it seems accurate to say that nearly 40% of serious crimes are committed by younger people. That is, especially boys between the ages of 15 and 24.
Sending our young people to prison environments and so-called youth facilities is akin to tossing the fox into the hen house for the safety of the chickens. Indeed, in this view I am hoping that one day in the future all prisons are made obsolete as they have failed historically to reduce crime or to better the future lives of inmates. In fact, in most cases, just the opposite has occurred.
Writer Jens Soering in his book, “An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse” offers at least two excellent alternatives: (1) create mandatory programs that put young people to work like “filling sand bags for the military” or (2) renovating inner-city housing. It would certainly be to every states advantage to recreate a kind of Roosevelt type Civilian Conservation Corp, established in 1933. It takes little imagination to catch hold of the concept:
Older inmates could be assigned to work on bridges, roads and so forth. And Yes, while I agree this could not work for high risk or violent criminals I do believe that it would work for hundreds of thousands of other inmates. When thinking about this, remember that many states loan their prisoners out to work in the public sector for special interests of prison officials, friends and influential farm and business owners so to say that a “prisoner Conservation Corp” couldn’t work because of risk to the public, the argument simply doesn’t hold. In fact, there are probably convicts laboring out in someone’s field or in someone’s plant as I write these words across this virtual page.
Would a program like this further reduce jobs for working Americans? Actually American out-of-work-laborers could participate in public work programs but the truth is that a lot of work that convicts could accomplish for a fraction of labor costs for work that government simply cannot (or will not) afford to pay even average wages for. Incidentally, for those who call what I am suggesting “socialism,” the giant so-called capitalists in the U.S. are building plants on foreign soil and giving jobs to foreigners taking away all opportunity on the home front for American labor and all they are called are, “frugal business operators.” All I am calling for is an improved “frugal” incarceration system!
Is it any wonder we have such a high recidivist rate? At least 20% of all inmates have serious mental problems—they lack therapy and proper medication while in prison and should they be fortunate enough to get out, they generally head for the streets because they are by and large unwanted and uncared for human beings. With basically no skills, no treatment and no hope they are most apt to do something—if it is merely to break some rule of their release—to end up back in the joint.
However, there are simply a lot of inmates who would rehab if they had real opportunity like learning a trade or gaining some skill while serving time. And yes, I am well aware there are also “mad-dog killers,” compulsive rapists, molesters and all kinds of twisted people who will probably never rehabilitate until someone discovers a way to reconstruct brain cells and change brain chemistry. Since this will never happen at least in our time we must assume that the prison cell is the only alternative for those people. On the other hand, there are actually kids in adult lockup or some juvenile facility that will spend many years incarcerated lacking proper education and social skills when they are finally released. As a result they will hit the streets with heads filled with street-wise maneuvering and…values with no ordinary skills, education or a backdrop of good and truly conscientious therapy.
Aren’t our young people worth saving?
Most authorities of our penal and legal system would quickly answer the above question with something like, “Yes, of course, we care about our youth.” But here is an observation from Jens Soering that gives us all food for thought: “Yet, as recently as the 2002/2003 session, the US Supreme Court embarrassed this country by once again endorsing the execution of defendants who were juveniles at the time of their crimes. Twenty-one such court-ordered child murders have been carried out in this country since 1976. Since 2001, no other nation in the world has executed a defendant who was under age eighteen during the commission of his or her offense, and only two other countries even provide this option, under their laws: Pakistan and the Republic of the Congo.
The other sad statistic is that the United States is the world’s prison nation—we have more human beings caged in jails and prisons per capital than anyone else around the globe including Russia and China. How can we be the freest country in the world and at the same time have more people behind bars than any other system?
There is not a simple solution: Prisoners have become commodities for a great many people directly and indirectly. One report I read was that Dial Soap earned $100,000 by supplying one jail for a month…or was it a year…it doesn’t matter business is business. Telephone companies compete for prison business. Collect calls for prisoners are much higher to make than collect calls outside the prison gates. On the outside a collect call from a single phone earns around $3,000…the same phone inside the prison earns around $15,000.
Collect calls from prisoners are most typically made to extremely poor people—family, relatives and friends—but instead of prisoners getting a fair treatment, in a term, they get the shaft—bit business takes advantage of their misfortune in a system willing to “play along.”
And, the prison system is making a lot of money for those at the top. While I do not know if this remains the case, ex-President George H. Walker Bush owned shares in the private prison system. Talk about the super wealthy taking advantage of the misfortune of others but this is not really the exception—there are many giant businesses adding greatly to their profits year after year because we “house” so many inmates.
In addition to the above and returning to Soering for a moment: He tells us: “…With farming, mining and logging in structural decline, penitentiaries are increasingly becoming the primary employers in small towns like Ionia, Michigan, home to six correctional facilities with 5,994 convicts and 1,584 guards. A full 60% of prisons are now building rural communities as local leaders compete for these secure, though low-paying jobs.”
We’ve mostly had the image of male imprisonment but at this juncture we will talk about the growing population of female inmates. Meda Chesney-Lind tells us that, “Between 1930 and 1950, the United States opened only about two to three facilities for woman per decade, but over thirty-four were opened in the eighties alone.” That number keeps escalating!
It is well known by researchers that 57.2 percent of women behind bars had been either sexually or physically abused before entering the system. Interestingly enough, a great many male prisoners reported being abused as boys but not as grownups while women reported being abused as both children and grownups. Needless to say that prison life simply becomes an extension of that abuse.
Most women inmates (60%) are serving time for drug offenses or property offenses. Obviously there is a better, more productive solution to their problems than…prison. This common-sense observation, however, is rejected by the system that turns prisoners into the cogs that keep the big prison machines running. As for violent women who have murdered—a majority of such women murdered their male abusers and this became their one and only offense. The point being made here is obvious!
It is interesting that so many so-called penal/legal authorities are in denial that most inmates arrive in prison from having childhood pasts of physical, mental or emotional abuse; males as well as females when we speak of abuse as children. Is this not signal enough to suggest that we need an alternative system to prisons; a new view of crime and punishment…or is “punishment” part of the problem? I personally believe that it is so I will change the statement into, “We now need a view of ‘crime and perception.’ ”
There has always been the dyed-in-the-wool moralist that has no empathy for the criminal; the one who says, if they break the law, lock ‘em up and throw away the key. I have known such people, the holier-than-thou types who are most apt to quote Jesus and then, if you will, cast the first stone. Nevertheless, I yield to the question asked by Emile Durkheim who said, “…if crime is not pathological than the purpose of punishment cannot be to cure it.”
What our penal, legal and judicial systems now maintain is nothing less than an eye for an eye incentive. Rehabilitation is a mere tool—a term used—for bettering public relations. In this regard we still have a 15th century mentality when it comes to criminals and other law breakers; a “toss ‘em on the rack” attitude hidden under layers of reform and other humane jargon.
Indeed, another change that needs to occur in the so-called quest to reduce crime is to actually work on reducing poverty or, in the least, bettering the conditions of poverty.
Going back to the 1960’s when Lyndon Johnson declared in his State of the Union Address, a war on poverty. Early efforts created programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps and other needed benefits by the country’s most impoverished. These benefits were life saving for some and actually reduced some criminal behavior in that people no longer had to steal to eat.
The “war” on poverty however, has lost. Poverty today is expanding at a rapid pace as the gap between rich and poor widens more than ever before. Indeed, today the term “middle-class” has become a metaphor for those who are able to keep from falling through the cracks into financial desperation. What we basically have today is upper-poor and lower-wealthy before entering the chasm that now separates the very poor and the very rich.
Before returning directly to the subject of crime and criminals, prisons and prisoners, we need to answer the following question since we know that poverty and criminal behaviors are weaved together and, for that matter, always have been. The question is how can we have such terrible conditions in our country which is still known to be the wealthiest place on the planet? And the answer is because we allow it and in many instances even “support” it by our neglect of it.
Back in 1997 the count of America’s poor was 34.3 million, today we have 15 million children living under the poverty line—in California alone there are 2 million youngsters enduring stark poverty.
What is interesting is that on average, there are at least 100,000 children incarcerated each year in the U.S. and most will be poor children even though wealthy and middle class children are statistically responsible for over 50% of crimes committed by youth.
Yes, you read right…but nearly all people in American lockup-young and older—are from the bottom of society. I do not have the current numbers but at the turning of the new millennium around one out of every fifty-five American adult males were behind bars—but then again as I have already said since at least the 1980s we have been locking up our poor and mentally ill right along with our (real) criminals and, I also repeat, we presently have more people per-capita in our jails and prisons than anyplace else around the world.
What we first need to do is improve living conditions for our very poor. But wait, the common reaction to this is—hey, the American way is to let people fend for themselves…if people are impoverished they got that way on their own, let them live in it or change it themselves.
But this in not at all the case—ghettoes and barrios and other very impoverished environments are results of the system and not a creation of dopers and no-hopers as so many believe. There are actually many very decent and caring human beings who are victims of their circumstances and not volunteers as the “system” would have the rest of us believe.
In view of this, not too many years ago the nation’s savings and loans crisis cost taxpayers nearly 3 billion dollars, today we are supporting a war that has cost into the trillions. The question is, if there had never been a savings and loan crisis, or an automobile manufacturing or banking crisis or a war—how many of all those trillions of dollars would have been used to raise the standard of living for America’s very poor? And my answer is…none!
Incidentally, with a rise in the standard of living for the country’s poor there would inevitably be a lowering of the crime rate.
A major problem we face and the penal system certainly makes a great billboard sign for promoting it—is that our system is clearly based on social-Darwinistic values. In fact, all our historic business “heroes” were nothing less than the robber barons of their times.
This social-Darwinism persists into our own time—even our legal system is profit orientated and motivated. And while I agree that there is no better system on the face of the earth than capitalism…I also believe that a new capitalism should (and could) emerge in the form of a new Compassionate Capitalistic System.
Such a system would begin by simply becoming conscientious to empathetic caring about people. Since we are all aware that the institution and so bureaucracies are heartless by nature a good start would be to deconstruct the traditional attitude of the bureaucratic institution and ground it in humaneness as opposed to its historic and current egocentricity. In the doing, our so-called representatives should be working on laws that free us instead of laws that control and enslave us—we are a “FREE” country are we not?
The truth of course is that we have more laws than anywhere else on the planet. Even our own Justice Department tells us that at least 90% of every American has broken some law for which they could be sent to prison for. How absurd is it for a country to have so many laws that even the LAWyers do not know them all. How can this be and yet we keep boasting how free we are? Is this not an apparent paradox?
In any case, when it comes down to it, poverty is a social disease and seldom a personal shortcoming as we are led to believe. And so, regardless of what we are told, poverty is really seldom the cause of the individual who lives in its devastations. After all, poverty is inherited just as wealth is but even this is not the point—the point is that the conditions of poverty such as hunger, lack of medical care, inadequate housing and so forth are a construct of the system; a symptom of the social order itself. A great many people like to suppose that “those living in impoverished conditions are simple failures; uneducated, lazy, boozers and losers. While these conditions exist in all economic environments, poverty does not equate with laziness, dishonesty and/or ineptness. While it is true that street crimes and war zone environments are major results of inner-city youths—very few people outside these environments—including authority— grasp the humiliation or desperation of stark poverty. Indeed, those at the bottom of the economic spectrum have virtually been abandoned by the system and by those living, so to speak, outside the ghetto gates. This is of course realized—at one level of consciousness or another—by those who live in the down-and-out environments.
I am speaking of people who understand that their chances are slim (to zero) to obtain loans for business or home; to send their kids to college or to find the better, higher paying jobs. And so many are apt to subsidize their lives in other ways and so for some crime and defiance becomes a “common tool” for the subsidization. (The vast majority who uses this “tool” will sooner or later end up behind bars and, in our system, once a person has been labeled a “felon” his or her chances of ever recovering to live a normal life as an American citizen is all but gone…forever).
I believe it is safe to say, however, that criminal life, at least most commonly begins for people in their youth—many youngsters simply grow up with their gangs or groups and continue their lives as thugs, gangsters or just plain, law breakers. What most will have in common is lack of education, buried emotions (more often than not immature emotionalism), fear of and distain for authority; pride in symbolism of belonging to a particular neighborhood or turf such as “colors” or dress style, even language. This is primarily a yearning to be recognized as a “someone” who is of value and importance.
What I believe to be important to understand is that these “human beings” were born with some genetic dictate to be criminals—the contributors to most of these mobsters and would-be mobsters were inattentive and non-nurturing parents, a social system that is intrinsic in creating poverty and at the same time condemns its impoverished; a legal system that upholds the letter of the law but gives no concern to the purpose of the law; a judicial system that is clearly bias against the poor and a penal system that makes profit, politics and punishment major motivations. At the same time we have a civic system that rewards District Attorney Offices for convictions as opposed to seeking truth and justice and schools in the poorest districts are, by and large, given the most inept budgets which has so often resulted in inept teachers, inept facilities, inept student concern and finally inept interest from students.
In regard to the above, I would be interested in knowing how many readers of this article have ever even been inside an inner-city school building opposed to a nice, clean, safe school for the middle or upper classes. In fact, I will leave you with this thought—a quote from John Ruskin: “Let us reform our schools, and we shall find little reform needed in our prisons.”
There are no quick fixes or even absolute answers to the problems and challenges I have given rise to in the above—the cornerstone to making positive changes, however, is clearly to simply care and stop closing one’s eyes to the people enduring impoverished lives be they on the streets, in the ghettoes or in our prisons. No one in the world—much less the United States needs to go to bed hungry tonight. Yet, there is at least 15 million children living below the poverty line—in California alone there are around 2 million! There are approximately 1.5 million children in the U.S. who are homeless as I write these words. Ideological Americans like to blame parents for this atrocity but parents are not always to blame.
When we think about it, ghettoes are indeed legalized segregated areas where the whole of society can turn their heads (and with their heads, their backs) on the people living there. For most Americans the very poor become a “them” as distinguished from an “us.” But the truth is, they are “us” only in different circumstances.
We so-called normal Americans are so indoctrinated with the concepts that poverty is a chosen condition. Indeed, in 1984 when Ronald Reagan was asked about people living on the street, he calmly told us that homeless people were homeless because…they wanted to be. Middle class America began parroting this absurd observation and many still do in our own times—the big excuse these days, however, for not giving the street person even a few pennies is the comment—that guy holding the sign probably has more in the bank than I do. We can always find reasons to support our own callousness and non-caring.
Should we care or should we adopt the “tough luck” attitude that so many hold in the hollows of their minds? First of all, we can no longer lean on the old “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” theory. This ideal evolved before mandatory spending was demanded by the system, before cars and gasoline were essential to maneuver in life, before education was essential to have and technology was a major key to the future; before minimum wage and a challenging high-cost-of-living emerged; before payroll taxes and other confiscations. Indeed, by the 1900s poverty began to change in the big cities and become desperate and deprived. This was around 50 years after the gap between prosperity and poverty began widening and the railroad and steel barons began most virtually running the country. The same kind of business greed and lobbying continues on today as our politicos continue to bow to special interests and as a result, the gap simply keeps growing wider and wider, deeper and deeper between rich and poor.
It is our poor who populate most of our prisons—it is in fact almost as bad as Jeffery Reiman tells us that it is. He says: The rich get richer and the poor get prison.”
In view of all of this we talk a lot about the reform of prisoners but the system needs reforming so that there is less need to fill the prison beds with human beings.
As the reader can see these subjects could easily continue on into volumes and so I will conclude by leaving the following food for thought: Prisons as they are today must eventually be made obsolete…as Durkheim tells us our modern system of punishment is both irrational and emotional… the way to combat crime and therefore reduce crime is to be more conscientious of our poor and to combat stark poverty—and I repeat “stark poverty” is a social disease not a failure of the individual.
We all need to consider the above evaluation before passing judgment on America’s most impoverished. The homeless are not homeless because they want to be…the mentally ill are not sleeping on park benches and in alleyways tonight because they have alternatives; the person with the sign that says “Need Help” does not have a Mercedes parked around the corner—all of these self-serving ideas and concepts are social memes that serve the system but not the people.
Crime will never go away of course. In fact, the reader may be interested in knowing that statistically middle class kids are responsible for over 50% of youth crime in America and that white color criminals are keeping prison beds filled almost at the rate of crimes committed by the poor and uneducated. In fact, white color crimes are costing the United States around $300 billion each and every year.
Crime can be greatly reduced, however by giving a new view to our very poor and creating renovation projects that extend from upgrading conditions of housing to repairing conditions of inner-city schools; to establishing enough funding to ground the poor in basic, home security and open opportunities for learning skills or gaining degrees.
We all know that prisons, as they are today, are breeding grounds for learning the trades of professional crime and deepening resentments—we need to lean far more on community-based corrections, house arrest consignments and turn to therapy and medicine as opposed to punishment. This is the 21st century, folks—we have smart phones and moon landings so clearly it is time to leave the world of *Les Miserables by the wayside and recreate ourselves into a modern, caring society and perhaps even become the world’s light in the window once again.
References and suggested reading:
Lind-Chesney Meda and Marc Mauer (editors) Invisible Punishment *The New Press
Davis, Y. Angela * Are Prisons Obsolete *Seven Stories Press
Garland, David * Punishment and Modern Society *University of Chicago Press
Garland, David * The Culture of Control *University of Chicago Press
Dyer, Joel * The Perpetual Prisoner Machine *Westview Press
Soering, Jens * An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse *Lantern Books
Zimbardo, Philip * The Lucifer Effect *Random House
*Les Miserables is an 1862 Novel by Victor Hugo.