The Magazine

Free at Last

What will happen as large numbers of ex-cons are released from prison?

Sep 9, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 48 • By ELI LEHRER
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This will require a radical break with current practices. A 2001 Urban Institute study on prisoner reentry uncovered some shocking practices that border on negligence. The state of California sends mentally ill prisoners home with only one day's worth of medication and, quite often, no directions on how to get more. Is it any surprise that so many return to crime? Parole and probation caseloads per officer have more than doubled since 1980. And, although they have proven successful in places like Boston and Orange County, programs based on intensive monitoring are under-funded. Indeed, a June 2002 cover story in Governing magazine argued persuasively that Boston's crime rates had begun to rise after a decade of decline largely because the city's law enforcement establishment lost its focus on the intensive intervention program that had become a national model.

Thanks to the end of parole in many states, poorly behaved prisoners often serve out their entire sentences and then get released with no supervision whatsoever. There's no reason why the states shouldn't endeavor to follow up on every released prisoner by, at the very least, forcing them to register with the local police and other social service agencies. Lowell, Mass., and Stamford, Conn., have both pioneered highly effective partnerships with local probation departments. (Both cities, not coincidentally, rank among the top 20 crime reducers in the country.) While intensive monitoring can be costly, it is always cheaper than keeping people locked up. In some cases, states might do better to shorten sentences a bit and redirect the money toward monitoring a larger percentage of released prisoners, re-imprisoning them if they show any sign of reverting to their old ways.

Finally, faith-based programs deserve more consideration. It goes without saying that no prisoner should be forced into faith-based rehabilitation but, at the very least, faith-based programs should stand on an equal footing with the New Age whole-person philosophies that pass for rehabilitation in many prisons today. Recidivism rates were considerably lower in the late 19th century when prisons saw their work in explicitly spiritual terms. Such practices deserve another try. Muscular Billy Graham-style evangelical Christianity, orthodox Islam, and Roman Catholicism all provide clear rules for nearly all aspects of life and, as a result, produce sincere converts who rarely re-offend.

Those who believe that today's prisons are soft on criminals have a point. Allowing inmates to continue lazy, hedonistic, and immoral behavior is a recipe for a high recidivism rate. More than anything else, prisoners need more rules and regulations. Society should force them to work, attend classes, stop doing drugs, and live sober, upright lives after leaving prison. Doing so would punish them and protect the rest of us more effectively than green baloney sandwiches ever could.

Eli Lehrer, a senior editor at the American Enterprise, works on the Heritage Foundation's Excellence in Policing Project along with former Attorney General Edwin Meese III.