Alternatives to Incarceration and Tough Transitions: A Spot of Hope

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It is undeniable that mass incarceration devastates families, and disproportionately affects those which are poor and non-white. When examining the crimes that bring individuals into the prison system, it is clear that there is often a pre-existing pattern of hardship, addiction, or mental illness in offenders’ lives. The children of the incarcerated are then victimized by the removal of those who care for them and a system which plants more obstacles than imaginable on the path to responsible rehabilitation.

Hopefully, the current system is bound to change, as the growing number of prisoners in the United States is simply unsustainable. However, this change will likely happen at a glacial pace, resulting from court decisions and piecemeal legislation. The initiative to resentence for crack cocaine offenses under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 is a good example of improvement, but one that happened far too late: the lives of many have been put on hold for so long, and the journey back will be and has been an unjustly difficult one. See Charlie Savage, Obama Commutes Sentences for 8 in Crack Cocaine Cases, The New York Times (Dec. 19, 2013), available at Looking to non-profits for solutions to the arduous transition process as well as, in some cases, alternatives to incarceration, is one real glimmer of hope for ex-cons and the families that suffer with them.

The Last Mile is one strong example of a program which seeks to lessen the crushing difficulty of transitioning back to the free world. The Last Mile is a program developed in cooperation with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and launched at San Quentin in 2011. See The idea is a novel one: take particularly motivated participants and train them for “eventual employment in a paid internship program within the Silicon Valley technology sector.” Id. The program “includes discussions about how the digital world functions,” including the development of a “‘personal brand’ outside of [participants’] label as ‘prisoner.’” Id. The final project of the program is to “conceive a business idea and create a business plan that includes a technology component and social cause.” Id. The Last Mile is effective because it encourages self-sufficiency and self-esteem while giving ex-convicts a feeling a purpose and a new “brand.” While these sorts of programs should be more ubiquitous, this is one good model for other groups to follow.

Recently, the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families has proposed another alternative to mass non-rehabilitative incarceration. The Center’s proposed “Jobs-Not-Jail” approach to punishing noncompliance with child support payments would use run-ins with the law as a chance to educate and assist rather than incarcerate. See The model the Center proposes that “[i]n lieu of incarceration the non-custodial parent can enter a comprehensive fatherhood program which delivers employment and support services focused on increasing their abilities to provide both financial and emotional support to their child.” Id. One problem with child support laws is that a boilerplate approach to justice often evades the ultimate purposes of the legislation. While prison is one incentive to stay out of trouble, it should not be the only incentive, and providing guidance to those struggling with child support payments could allow those in contempt to see other incentives more clearly. In prison, these individuals cannot provide financial or emotional support to their children. In the “Jobs-Not-Jail” proposal, participants are kept on the straight-and-narrow by securing employment (with assistance from the program) and taking 24 weeks of “Responsible Fatherhood” classes. Id. If they default, then they are non-compliant and a bench warrant may be issued, similar to other alternative sentencing arrangements (such as those for in place for certain drug offenses). See id.

Getting word out and changing the public discourses on the prison-industrial complex are steps that may sway the current American culture in a more positive direction on these issues. Prisoners are still people, and defining people by their worst mistakes perpetuates feelings of worthlessness, violence, and the suffering of ever-increasing numbers of families impacted by the criminal justice system. It is time to offer ex-cons new opportunities to repay their debts to society.

Posted by Rory J. Fleming on Fri. February 14, 2014 2:33 PM
Categories: Captive Audience: Incarceration and the Family

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