Tag Archives: reentry programs

A different Ferguson effect

We journalists like to talk about the distinction between a topic and a story. The topic of my latest story, in this Sunday’s New York Times business section, is the role employers can play in hiring more former prisoners for good jobs after their release. I developed that topic from chatter I heard in the criminal-justice policy world and from asking a question, after reading umpteen stories about the desperate need to boost employment numbers as a prisoner-reentry strategy. The question: What’s in it for employers?

Once I knew that was the topic I wanted to write about, I needed to find an example of a place where the problem is being tackled in a creative, market-driven way. What drew me to St. Louis was the merits of the program I focus on. It is, all my sources agreed, the most ambitious and effective of its kind.

But its location makes for an irony. It’s not one that I explored in the story, but that’s what blogs are for. That this program blossomed in the shadow of Ferguson, Missouri, speaks to a more complicated narrative about that region’s approach to crime than the one we’ve heard again and again after the death of Michael Brown.

I’m not saying the Brown protests lack authenticity. Whatever the interpretation of the facts surrounding Brown’s death, it’s clear that the systems of justice in Ferguson and St. Louis County were exposed as severely unfair and racist in multiple state and federal probes.

And I’m not saying that the program I wrote about is a response to the Ferguson controversy. In fact, it started in 2002, long before the protests in the St. Louis area.

But it’s an example of how the common outside view of a place can obscure contradictions. Though in the story I focus on the business rationale for this program, what’s just as interesting to me is that the people running it are motivated to change lives for the better. Their primary job is to enforce conditions of supervision once someone gets out of prison. But, to do that job, they choose to focus on helping those people adjust and creating conditions that make it more likely for them to succeed.

The upshot of the story is how difficult and detailed such attempts can be. But the underlying message is just as important: Someone in a position of power is trying, on a fairly grand scale.

“Compassion gap” and crime

Last month, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to provide college classes to select prison inmates provoked an outpouring of public disdain for convicted criminals, I focused my criticism on news sites that invite mindless mob reactions rather than convene a more thoughtful debate. Nick Kristof’s column yesterday reminds me that the underlying problem is the mob itself — and the mindset that turns ugly whenever anyone suggests we treat social problems with compassion.

Kristof touched off a “compassion gap” in reader comments by writing of a mom struggling to care for her disabled son. Because she is not model-skinny and because she sports tattoos, she became a target for condemnation for supposedly failing to address her own problems. The same impulse he decries — scold first, ask questions later, when we’re asked to help those in need — turns even uglier when crime, not just poverty, is the issue. Then all the moralizing about taking responsibility gets ratcheted up even louder.

Because appeals to empathy and charity fail with some people, what about pointing out self-interest? When we turn our backs on people who have committed crimes — when we decide to rely solely on punishment and incapacitation (eliminating them as a potential threat) — we incur great financial costs to house, care for, and guard them. And we practically guarantee that if they ever get out, they’ll have no realistic chance to be better people, and better-equipped to live law-abiding, productive lives.

In the context of the prison-education debate, where the letters to the editor and online comments continue to wallow in the muck, you may lament the added public expense and the inequity of providing this for criminals when good citizens have to pay for their own education. But by that logic, why should we provide any programs of any sort to inmates? The answer should be obvious: We need them to become self-sufficient, productive, and law-abiding. The alternatives — locking everyone up forever or spinning the prisons’ revolving door ever faster — are ones we cannot afford, in any sense of the word.

It’s natural to feel resentful, at times, of others’ irresponsibility, mistakes, and cruelty. When we allow those emotions to overwhelm our better nature, and all reason, then we also forfeit any claim to moral superiority.

 

The anger games

Just when it seems we’re capable of having a civil, bipartisan conversation about criminal justice reform — when everyone from Right on Crime to Texas legislators to Rand Paul decides it’s OK to ease up on the tough-on-crime talk — I’m brought back to reality.  And it’s a newspaper’s fault for the letdown.

The reminder started when New York’s governor proposed using state money to restore the sort of college-classes-in-prison program that once was common but got thrown out in the talking-tough era. In what passes these days for journalism, one of my local papers, Gannett’s Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, posted its story on Facebook and lit the match with the not-so-profound question, “What do you think?”

The result: Payback for decades of distorted news coverage of marauding criminals and overheated, hateful rhetoric that scores cheap political points by bashing an easy target, the felons. It turns out, what “you” think looks like this:

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And this:

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And of course this:

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Etc., for hundreds more posts.

The New York proposal is, of course, fair game for a real debate. And some commenters did, in fact, ask good questions about whether this is the best way to address recidivism or to use limited resources.  Some actually cited evidence about which tactics do or don’t work. But the vast majority of comments were simply spleen-venting, spittle-flying rants.

So here’s the question: What exactly do we gain from doing this to ourselves? When journalism meant digging for facts and convening a thoughtful discussion of experts and civic-minded laymen, it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone that we should wander into the howling mob outside the door, hand it the keys to our printing press, and invite them to enlighten us with their prejudices, assumptions, resentments, and uninformed bile. Now, someone at Gannett gets to check off a box noting how much reader engagement he fostered this week (put aside how many of the torch-bearing commenters is actually a regular reader, much less a paying subscriber). It’s a business model that works for some (I’m looking at you, Fox News and MSNBC) — creating controversy to give yourself something easy and exploitative to cover as “news” — and indeed today’s followup stories featured legislative critics responding to public outrage over the prison-education proposal. But when this is what passes for journalism about a topic so critical to a peaceful, stable society, I die a little.

I singled out this newspaper on this topic only because it’s convenient. But it’s an everyday occurrence everywhere, but for places that have decided open forums are just trouble.

And it’s more than just a waste of time. It serves as a stark warning to any policymaker who dares stand in front of the mob and ask, “Is it really wise to pound every inmate with punishment and humiliation and deprivation for way too many years?” When that policymaker considers asking what the end game is — what we ought to be doing to provide for a safer, more productive society; to fix what’s broken in public safety, and people — what are the chances he’ll have the guts to engage in this sort of “debate”?

So, what do you think?