Stephen is a member at our church who is also homeless. If Stephen is not in jail, he’s on his way back. A couple years ago he tried to write some checks from a checkbook that didn’t belong to him. He was tried, convicted, and served a lengthy jail sentence without ever going to prison. (Jail and prison are very, very different) Upon his release, Stephen was ordered to pay the fine for writing hot checks. Because he is homeless, he didn’t have the money to pay the fine. So after a few days passed and he didn’t pay, a warrant was issued for his arrest. And, again, because he is homeless, Stephen is approached by police officers almost daily. When an officer decides to run his ID, the warrant pops up, and Stephen goes right back to jail. Each time he’s released, he’s ordered to pay the fine. But because he’s homeless, he can’t. So a few days pass and another warrant is issued.
See where this is going?
According to this report, it cost $62.93 per day in 2013 to house an inmate in the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Multiply that by 30 and you get $1,887.90 for Stephen’s 30-day sentence. Multiply that by six, assuming he gets sent back every other month, and we pay an annual cost of $11,327.40 because Stephen can’t pay his $2,000 fine.
In other words, tax payers just about pay his fine every time he’s sentenced.
But it’s not just the money. The logic behind Stephen’s situation is baffling. Simply put, it’s believed that if we punish Stephen enough, he will eventually pay his fine. This logic seems to be found throughout our country: punish criminals enough, they’ll turn from their criminal behavior.
A few weeks ago I spent a morning at a local prison receiving training to be a regular volunteer with the Pathway to Freedom program. The Wrightsville/Hawkins unit in the community of Wrightsville, just south of Little Rock, houses Arkansas’ only Pathway to Freedom program. PTF was once IFI, a subgroup of Prison Fellowship begun by disgraced Nixon aid Chuck Colson. Colson started the ministry after serving time in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. It is now an international ministry that reaches inmates of all types in an effort to transform and not just punish. PTF follows many of the principles of Prison Fellowship and IFI.
At our training, we were taught the 5 Common Personality Traits of Criminal Thinking, as explained by Dr. Stanton E. Samenow. They are:
1. NO CONCEPT OF INJURY TO OTHERS
2. SEEKS TO CONTROL OTHERS
3. CARRIES A LOT OF HOSTILITY AND ANGER
4. REACTS TO LIFE IN AN EXTREME WAY
5. IS VERY FEARFUL, BUT USUALLY CONCEALS IT
You may be thinking the same thing I thought at the time: “sounds like my 2-year-old.” And that’s precisely the point. Many inmates, especially men, had traumatic childhoods that forced them into the adult world prematurely. They are no more prepared to handle things like confrontation, temptation, or complete freedom than a child, yet they are held to the same standards as adults.
This is not a justification of their behavior, but rather an indictment on how we’ve chosen to address it. Criminals are punished. Period. But should that be the only solution? Is that how we raise our kids? Is that how you want your son or daughter’s teacher to teach? By punishing? I realize you may think criminals are nothing like your kindergartener, but the comparison is not much of a stretch. As I said, many criminal’s stopped maturing early in their childhood. Now, they need the same care and guidance as a child with the same maturity level.
Let me pause here to put your mind at ease. I do believe punishment has its rightful place. I can hear you quote the verse in your head: “The Lord disciplines those he loves.” Jails and prisons have their necessary place in society. Take them away and we’d have chaos. Criminals need to be punished, but we cannot continue to believe that is all they need.
Punishing criminals has only forged the line between criminals and “the system.” When used ineffectively, punishment hardens the heart and steels the soul. It trains the criminal mind to think in terms of how to avoid getting caught instead of how to handle the situation better next time. And no amount of prison time will transform a person’s heart.
IS CRIMINAL BEHAVIOR A CHOICE?
Dr. Samenow also identifies 7 Common Types of Criminal Thinking:
1. The Victim Stance – “It’s their fault I’m in prison.”
2. Sense of Entitlement – “I deserve special privileges.”
3. Desire for Power – “I need to be in control.”
4. Pseudo Integrity – “I’m not as bad as they are.”
5. Irresponsibility – “I might do it if I feel like it.”
6. Sense of Uniqueness – “Those rules don’t apply to me.”
7. Closed-Mindedness – “It’s not my fault when things happen.”
You’ll notice there is no mention of choice.
Yes, Stephen made a “choice” to write hot checks. But not in the way I made a choice to eat apple pie for lunch today. It’s more like the way I chose to be friends with my buddy Craig. We met while in a group of mutual friends. We started talking and found out we had similar interests like Michigan football and Duke basketball. We liked the same movies, shared the same values, and soon we were friends. There was no choice in the matter, as we think of the word choice, we simply stumbled into friendship.
In the same way, a person who exhibits many or all of the 7 Common Types of Criminal Thinking will be more likely to commit a crime than someone who exhibits few or none of them. There will be no conscious choice, they will simply become a criminal the way Craig and I became friends. It’s more like a process, not a choice.
In his amazing book, “David and Goliath,” Malcolm Gladwell (hallowed be his hair) wrote about the crime that led to California’s infamous Three Strikes Law. According to the law, a person’s third felony conviction carries a sentence of no less than 25 years to life. The crime was committed outside a California restaurant. Two guys on a motorcycle saw a couple leave the restaurant while on a date. They pinned the girl against her car with their motorcycle. One guy attacked her date while the other grabbed her purse. The purse-snatcher also pulled a .357 Magnum handgun and shoved it against the side of her head. After a few moments he pulled the trigger. She died the next day.
Her father invited as many powerful and influential people as he could to dinner at his house in an effort to ensure no parent has to endure what he did. From that gathering, the Three Strikes Law was conceived. It was believed that criminals will think twice before committing an offense if they know it could lead to a life sentence.
Based on California’s statistics since then, the law hasn’t worked.
Maybe because most criminal behavior isn’t actually a choice as we like to ascribe it. Douglas Walker, the young man who grabbed the purse and shot the girl in the head, would say several months later:
“I wasn’t really thinking much a nothing, you know. When it happens, it happens, you know. It just happened suddenly. We were just out doing what we do. I mean, that’s all I can tell you.”
We in the free world would like to think every criminal act is a choice. That way we can rest easy knowing the criminal is receiving his due penalty for choosing to commit a crime. We can also go on believing the best way to stop crime is by throwing people in jail. After all, that’s how we all learned not to touch the hot stove or stick our fingers in the electric sockets. We broke the rule and received a punishment.
Question: at what point does the criminal choose to stop being a criminal?
We want to believe it happens some time in prison. Conditions get so severe that the criminal renounces his ways and pledges to be an upstanding citizen upon his release. But recidivism is high.
In 2008 (the latest year I can find), the recidivism rate (percentage of inmates who return to prison within three years) was around 46% in Arkansas. And those are just the people who got caught.
So if close to half the people who leave prison eventually come back, shouldn’t that motivate us to find another way? If you knew your child was just as likely to break a rule after serving his punishment, would you keep punishing him?
When Levi, our oldest son, was young, he would do everything possible to get my wife or me to come in his room at night. He hated being alone. So he would yell, he would pound his fists on the bed, he would get out of bed and say, “I’m out of bed. Aren’t you going to come give me a spanking?” Spankings worked, sometimes. But after a while they lost their effect. He repeated the same behavior whether he was punished or not.
He needed something else.
Pathway to Freedom, as I mentioned above, is “A Christ-centered holistic service program that provides educational, values-based, pre-release services to prisoners on a voluntary and non compulsory basis.” It lasts approximately 18 months. Men in the PTF program spend their days in classes, they have jobs around the facility, and they live in constant community. There is no television, but they do have a computer lab where they learn computer skills and a library where they can read and listen to music. PTF is about deconstructing the patterns of criminal behavior and then reconstructing a whole, transformed man in its place.
PTF’s recidivism rate: 8%
That means of the 40 or so inmates who graduate each semester from the program, 3 return to prison.
PTF works because it focuses on transforming the entire individual, not just punishing him for his crime.
WHAT TO DO
The problem is overwhelming and, if I’m being honest, I don’t quite know what to do other than write your local, state, and national representatives asking for a more creative approach to stymying criminal activity. That, and get involved in any and every organization dedicated to transforming people rather than just punishing them.
Our police officers are overworked, underpaid, and not trained to address the heart of criminals. Our jails and prisons are overflowing (this was released yesterday about the Pulaski County jail, about two miles from our church). Prison guards are trained to maintain order, not transform lives. Jailhouse religion is common, and can occasionally look good to a parole board. But its effects usually dwindle once the former inmate breathes free air.
Until we do something different, the Stephen’s of the world will just keep passing through our jails and prisons, draining resources and never really solving anything.