Research Paper: Convicted Felons Change?

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¶ … Convicted Felons Change?

One of the most pressing issues in modern criminal law is whether convicted felons can change. Are felons born to engage in antisocial activities, or do their environments shape them in a way that makes them antisocial? Moreover, does it matter? Whether caused by nature or nurture, do people with serious criminal tendencies have a meaningful chance at change once they have begun engaging in serious criminal behavior? Or, are convicted criminals so likely to reoffend and become recidivists, that aiming to reduce recidivism is a waste of resources? All of these questions are extremely important and need to be answered as quickly and as accurately as possible. The United States has a prison population that is disproportionately large for an industrialized, democratic nation. Moreover, recidivism rates in the United States are extremely high, so that there is no real hope of prison populations declining in the immediate future. Furthermore, while some people believe that law changes, such as the decriminalization of drug offenses, would remove status offenders from the criminal justice system, if criminal behavior cannot be successfully treated, then simply decriminalizing behaviors will not encourage people to act in a pro-social manner. Therefore, this paper will examine the issue of whether felons can change.

The nature vs. nurture question is an impossible one to answer because of the dearth of available research topics. A true nature vs. nurture question can only be done on identical twins, separated at birth, and raised in different environments. Otherwise, the genetic factors cannot be eliminated. Moreover, because environment can have a meaningful, if small, impact on a person's genetics, even twin studies do not conclusively answer those questions. Despite that caveat, the majority of researchers believe that blanket criminality owes more to nurture than to nature. The relationships between poverty, race, and criminality are well-documented, as are reports showing the inherent racism and classism in the American criminal justice system. Minorities are more likely to be convicted of crimes, and, therefore, become felons, when engaging in the same behavior as whites. That one factor skews the notion of whether felons can be successfully rehabilitated.

Another area where most researchers have come to a consensus is on whether the modern criminal justice system, as it currently exists, has been successful at providing opportunities for rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. The answer to that question is a resounding no. Today's criminal justice system places a high emphasis on punishment, and there is no disincentive for policymakers to change that emphasis. With rising crime rates and increased perception of danger, voters want politicians who are tough on crime, not politicians who are worried about rehabilitating criminals. This short-sighted perspective has actually been very damaging for society, because it has done nothing to reduce long-term crime rates or discourage recidivism.

Fortunately, some programs embrace rehabilitation as well as punishment. These programs have demonstrated that rehabilitation programs can dramatically impact recidivism rates. For example, the San Francisco Sheriff's Department's Resolve to Stop the Violence Program (RSVP) has been effective in reducing the rate of re-arrest for violent offenses "by more than 82% for those who spent 16 weeks or more in the program" (Hennessey, 2005). Many believe that the success of the RSVP program is because it provides such a total approach to reducing recidivism. First, unlike some rehabilitation programs, RSVP members do not self-select. On the contrary, they are chosen for the program based on criminal history and current charges. However, it would be erroneous to assume that this means that the program only targets minor offenders; on the contrary, many participants would be considered hardened offenders, having been convicted of crimes including: domestic violence, armed robbery, assault, battery, and rape. The fact that many of these criminals are rehabilitated and do not reoffend strongly suggests that convicted felons can reform.

The RSVP program may be successful, but that success is largely due to significant difference between the RSVP program and traditional forms of incarceration. First, the participants are not housed in cells, but in an open dormitory. This change in housing sets up a different community structure than traditional jail cells. Moreover, rehabilitation is the main focus of their incarceration; the offenders must participate in rehabilitation for fourteen hours a day, six days a week, for a minimum of 30 days. The counselors supervising the program are all either ex-offenders or victims of violence (Hennessey, 2005). The curriculum is based on the "Man Alive" violence prevention program, which: (1) raises awareness of belief systems promoting violence; (2) teaches men they have an alternative to violence; (3) improves communication skills; (4) develops empathy; and (5) focuses on personal responsibility (Hennessey, 2005). Furthermore, the program acknowledges that violence is only one of the problems that these men face, because their environments typically help shape their criminal behavior. As a result, the program offers educational opportunities, job training, and drug and alcohol treatment. Finally, once the RSVP graduates are paroled, they must continue with mandatory participation in violence-prevention and job placement programs, and work with victims' organizations speaking out against violence (Hennessey, 2005).

This post-parole work is crucial, because it keeps the men committed to a non-criminal way of life. In fact, it is during the time immediately following release that many convicts find it so tempting to re-offend, because they are challenged to reestablish themselves in an unsupervised environment, where they might face financial challenges and almost certainly face challenges based on choice of friends. "Parolees ARE returning home to their communities and they are facing multiple challenges: employment opportunities, housing, substance abuse addiction, transportation, and mental health services, to name a few. Many have strained relationships with family members, which impact their parole" (Prizmich, 2007). This rejection by the community makes it more likely that criminals are going to reoffend because, the risk of anti-social behavior increases when one feels " fear, lack of trust, low self-esteem, feelings of rejection, inadequate social skills, lack of empathy, isolation from others, and poor communications skills" (Freeman-Longo, 2001). It also makes it more likely that offenders will re-engage with criminally-oriented groups like formal or informal gangs. Therefore, maintaining a great reentry program is a necessary part of the rehabilitation process.

The RSVP program's success is interesting, but it is not applicable to a general population of felons. First and foremost, the RSVP program targets male offenders. This makes sense because the majority of offenders, especially violent offenders, are male. However, not all felons are male and there is significant body of sociological evidence suggesting that males and females offend for different reasons. Although not generally a felony, prostitution is a crime that is associated with high rates of recidivism. More importantly, prostitution is strongly linked to other felonious behavior, such as human trafficking, drugs, and organized crime. Despite all of those links, the reality is that the people most likely to be arrested for crimes in the sex trade, prostitutes, are more like victims than perpetrators. That is why the City of Dallas has stopped prosecuting prostitution. That does not mean that Dallas is advocating legalization. On the contrary, its anti-prostitution efforts may actually have increased since its decision not to prosecute the crime. What Dallas now does is treat prostitutes like victims of sex crimes rather than like criminals. This reverses the prostitutes' perceived role in society, which is that of criminal perpetrator, and makes them less likely to engage in future criminal behavior.

The success of the RSVP program and the City of Dallas' approach to prostitution elimination demonstrate that it is possible to successfully rehabilitate some criminals. However, it would be irresponsible to suggest that the successful rehabilitation of some criminals translates into the ability to rehabilitate all criminals. It is generally acknowledged that there are subgroups of felon that are very resistant to rehabilitation. These people are considered career criminals. Over the last quarter-century or so, several states have enacted anti-recidivism statutes, which have been aimed at increasing punishment for career criminals. These three-strike statutes, which provide for sentence amplification for third-time offenders, abandon the goal of rehabilitation and seek to incarcerate offenders for extensive periods of time. The message that these statutes send is that some offenders are such hardened felons that the protection of society requires their extended incarceration.

However, the reality behind three-strike statutes is not necessarily what one would assume. The fact that someone is a felon does not mean that he has committed violent or dangerous crimes; just that he has committed crimes that rise to the level of a felony. Some of these crimes can actually be relatively innocuous. Take, for example, the scenario in Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63 (2003). Defendant Andrade had a history of relatively petty criminal activity, including theft, residential burglary, drug offenses, and escape from prison. His criminal record lacked any evidence of violent crime. In 1995, Andrade stole video tapes on two different occasions from two different department stores. The prosecution chose to prosecute those petty thefts as… [END OF PREVIEW]

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