In this world of postage stamp policies and perceptions, it is not surprising that too few are aware of the importance of support for offenders after they leave institutions.
There is a reason that drafters entitled our statute “ the Corrections and Conditional Release Act”. It was that safe, effective community reintegration is a vital component of effective corrections.
Criminals almost always lack the knowledge and skills that they need to make good decisions about their behavior. In this respect, criminal justice scholars have long recognized a fundamental principle- that the proven approach to ensure success and to combat recidivism involves a continuum:
Teach skills throughout the sentence, including in the community, and maximize the period of community supervision to permit offenders to apply what they learn.
[I believe this reflects a basic adult education axiom, as well: Adults learn by doing.
The above begs two questions, though:
1. What is the skill threshold to be reached inside before permitting a safe release?
2. How do we keep people safe while released offenders roam the streets?
Both questions involve assessing risk – the likelihood that an offender will lapse into crime.
More important, though, the questions involve faith.
I believe that we have stepped backed from recognizing that element, to our peril
There has been a growing tendency in recent years for corrections officials and adjudicators to make “public safety” or some version of that phrase, the dominant test in release and supervision decisions. I believe that there are two main reasons for this.
First there is overwhelming caution.
The consequence of a decision that ultimately permits a released offender to recidivate can be bloody and notorious. Moreover, in this age of news bites and populist media, bad results will be quickly and widely transmitted, albeit without much depth. The vast majority of good results, on the other hand, get virtually no traction.
Accordingly, in the face of the spectre of the notorious mistake, decision-makers may well give weight to even the most minute risk contingency. The best way to manage the potential recidivist is not to let them out in the first place or to keep them under tight reign if they are released. At least, even if the worst case scenario occurs, decision-makers can show that they considered all factors under a microscope.
The second reason for the public safety emphasis is just plain politics.
We have discussed the anti-crime agenda of the current government at length in other posts. In sentencing and in decisions on penitentiary placement the tendency has been to maximize the length and severity of custody.
With respect to granting release and to imposing restrictive conditions on release, the attitude seems to be to make offenders demonstrate that they have addressed all possible aspects of their risk, down to the last possible detail. If they cannot show that they have done so, the Correctional Service or the Parole Board will bar their path, often on the basis of a whim.
It is difficult to describe what happens here. Decision-makers seldom overtly state the real specifics of why they deny release or imposed restrictive conditions on releases ( e.g. requirements to reside in halfway houses or to report very frequently to supervisors, etc., notwithstanding the actual need for these or the extra resources required to implement them)
Officials often state notional inferences from their interactions with offenders. These inferences often involve selective, vague or overly-broad interpretations of something an offender has said or done. This can relate to statements made under intense questioning at parole hearings or in conversation with staff, such as post-suspension interviews. Frequently offenders are confronted with information without having had a fair chance to review the background, basis or details and required to address the accusations involved.
The result is that, compared to previous political eras, decision-makers are significantly more likely to deny release or to impose harsh conditions, not because they are more sensitive to risks but because they are less sensitive to offenders.
These two attitudes have resulted in a significant increase in release denials and in the restrictiveness of release conditions. The latest figure I have, for example, is that paroles are 14% more likely to be denied these days than they were when the current government took power. And in the community, residential facilities and supervisory staff are over-burdened to a record degree (exacerbated, of course, by budgetary cutbacks).
The real problem here is not caution or political bias per se. It is how these bear on the willingness of correctional and parole board officials to give the benefit of the doubt in the marginal cases – where it is not clear that the offender is either an assumable risk or too high a risk.
This is the decision segment that is at the cutting edge of effective corrections. After assessing tangible or imminent risks and after identifying opportunities for progress identified by the offender, effective decision-makers will look for the best way to give the offender the chance to learn and improve in the community.
This involves faith. Faith that, after careful vetting, offenders will do better in the longer term by careful preparation and appropriate, experienced, supportive supervision.
Faith that the positive results of this will significantly outweigh the negatives.
For as long as the present attitudes continue, we will not be giving to as many offenders as we should the opportunity to flourish.
If we continue to do this, we will be stunting the success of more offenders than we should, which will lead to further offender mistakes and recidivism.
We will increase crowding inside and unnecessary use of resources on the street.
We will be less safe under the current approach and at greater cost to the taxpayer.
We need more faith.