Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Education is a wonderful thing.

I take it very seriously. I love to ponder possibilities and solutions to problems. Education opens our minds and challenges us to look at issues from a point of view different from our own. At least that's the way it works for me.

One of my courses this semester is a senior level "History of Crime and Criminal Justice in America". It is a very interesting course which has me thinking more deeply about issues I've often pondered but not too seriously. Right now we're covering the creation and development of the police and prison system in the United States. I never really wondered how it all began, I just took it for granted because it's always been a part of life. This course has me thinking about the system.

Originally the prison system was based on the idea of individualized treatment of prisoners. The mindset was rehabilitation rather than just taking society's unwanteds off the street and hiding them away. Prisoners were beaten, tortured, even murdered and reformers wanted action. They believed discipline should be adapted to each prisoner's personal characteristics. The reality was that with the great number of prisoners and the lesser number of staff, and all the responsibilities required of administering a prison, just didn't allow for it.

When you and I think of what it would require to undertake this, we're also shaking our heads asking "how?" and that's justified. I really think it's a nearly impossible task.

That said, we have to take a good hard look at the prison population and determine who can and cannot be rehabilitated. I guess I classify prisoners first by two classes: violent and non-violent.

Violent offenders would include those who have committed battery, rape, murder, and other crimes of violence or threat of violence.

Non-violent would be anyone who has not used violence or threat of violence in the course of committing a crime. I would say that non-violent offenders would also include individuals who killed in self-defense, without a history of violent behavior. Women who have killed their abusive husbands would fit into this category. Non-violent drug offenders are a huge part of this number too.

Focusing on violent offenders, the big question is "Can violent offenders be rehabilitated?"

Yes and no. I think it's possible depending on the nature of their crimes and their background. There are endless reasons people commit violent crimes. In order to attempt rehabilitation, we have to understand WHY the person commits violent crime. Some people, like Charles Manson, are hopeless causes, and some people like the 18 year old gang member, just might be saved. It just depends. Some people are inherently evil and you'll never change them. But I'd like to think that's a minority, not the majority.

There American prison system has its problems, but I think for the most part it's probably the best-run system in the world. I think the system is quite humane, even for the worst of society's criminals. Our prison system wasn't created overnight and when it was created, it was full of corruption. It took a long time and a lot of hard work on the part of reformers to get it where it is today and it still needs work. The US prison population is increasing dramatically every year. Is it really possible there could be this many "bad" people in our society? Is the punishment really fitting the crime? Are certain members of our population being incarcerated disproportionately to others?

These are things we need to consider.


  1. i am a huge fan of education myself. this is a very thought-provoking post. i have no idea what the answers are. my gut response is rehabilitation is simply an impossible task. it requires changing the was people think. and i just don't see how that's possible.

  2. Has the course you mentioned touched upon the Lizzie Borden case?

    Last August, I did a lengthy post about the Lizzie Borden case. You might be interested.