When Joan Petersilia graduated from Loyola University with a degree in social work, she obtained a job at a halfway house for female offenders. Her new vocation opened her eyes to some unsettling facts.
Petersilia discovered what numerous counterparts in her field already knew, that prisons do little to rehabilitate the criminals they house. In fact, 30 percent of all U.S. prison inmates commit a crime within six months of their release. In California, 70 percent of all parolees return to prison within 18 months. Moreover, because 60 percent of all inmates have failed to graduate from high school, and because many more are illiterate, possess drug addiction, and lack vocational skills for jobs, these inmates find it impossible to support themselves on the outside.
Currently working as a criminology professor at UCI, Petersilia recently published her book ‘When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry,’ which outlines several reforms that the United States should make with its penal code.
For example, Petersilia maintains that if the United States wants to reduce recidivism, it needs to invest in work, education and substance abuse programs, as it has been statistically proven that programs like these help inmates rejoin society.
And while some prisons do institute reintegration programs, the United States hasn’t appropriated nearly enough funds for these programs to work. For example, California only allocates $200 per prisoner each year to pay for drug rehabilitation programs, while statistics show that it costs approximately $10,000 to effectively rehabilitate one prisoner. Although this price may seem extravagant, it costs taxpayers $20,000 a year to house a prisoner, as well as $100,000 to build the cell for the prisoner to live in.
Petersilia holds that the key to solving our recidivism problem is investment. If we invest in vocational training, drug rehabilitation and education, we will ultimately save billions of dollars and, more importantly, reduce crime.
‘Investment in rehabilitation makes sense if we want to get people off drugs, alcohol and more importantly, get people jobs,’ Petersilia said.
Petersilia also recommends that the United States release more prisoners on parole instead of forcing them to serve their maximum sentence.
If a prisoner serves his maximum sentence, he goes from living under strict rules to living with absolute freedom, and committing another crime becomes both easy and enticing. Petersilia maintains that politicians used the ‘no-parole’ mantra to appear tough on crime when, in actuality, the philosophy aggravated crime rates and cost more than a simple parole system would have cost. In essence, the restrictions of parole allow ex-convicts a period of reintegration.
Besides reinstituting a more effective parole system, Petersilia maintains that prison records should be sealed from the public after a prisoner has proven that he is no longer a liability. Under current U.S. law, a person can never seal his or her prison record.
Because most people attach a stigma to criminal records, it becomes virtually impossible for ex-convicts to obtain decent jobs and makes it difficult for them to obtain amenities like adequate housing or car loans.
Petersilia points out, however, that a life-long public record is not only a serious liability, but that it doesn’t make sense given the statistics on prisoners who remain crime free for more than three years. There is only a 1 percent chance that he will commit a second crime.
While Petersilia believes that some prisoners should be allowed to seal their records from the public, she also maintains that other convicts, like sex offenders, should always carry a record.
Petersilia further holds that the U.S. should reevaluate its ‘war on drugs.’
‘The war on drugs has been, in many ways, a complete failure,’ Petersilia said.
Petersilia maintains that while the war on drugs has done nothing to reduce the number of drug dealers and drug users, it has increased the number of people who are incarcerated each year. This incarceration costs the United States billions, and it does nothing to cure drug addiction, as prisons offer convicts little or no access to rehabilitation programs.
Put simply, Petersilia believes that the United States’ penal system exacerbates crime.
‘In essence, we’re creating what we’re trying to prevent. We’re creating a class of people who can never become non-criminal because of the barriers that we’re setting up for them. Even those people who are motivated can’t seem to get out of the cycle,’ Petersilia said.
Petersilia’s beliefs have even garnered the attention of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Last month, Petersilia began working with Schwarzenegger’s California Youth and Adult Correctional Agency in their attempt to determine which non-violent prisoners they would deem worthy of parole release.
Petersilia will use statistics and computer models to determine which prisoners are most the qualified candidates for release.
Petersilia believes that while profiling systems can never be foolproof, releasing prisoners on parole will ultimately save California billions, and it will help alleviate crime as parole helps an ex-convict reintegrate into society.
Among other tasks, Petersilia will use statistics and computer models to determine which prisoners are qualified candidates for parole.
This month, Petersilia began working with Schwarzenegger’s California Youth and Adult Correctional Agency in their attempt to determine how to prevent parolees from being returned to California’s prisons.
While things will never be perfect releasing prisoners on parole will create far more positive change in society than it will negative.
Petersilia would like to make it clear, however, that while her views on prison reform seem liberal, she actually considers herself a moderate. This is because although she believes that the United States should be lenient on some criminals, she also holds that the United States should be more stringent with violent criminals and sex offenders.
In any case, there are many views out there. But the ultimate goal for our nation, as many would agree, is to minimize crime.