August 28, 2012

Prisoner "reentry": Paradigm shift or empty rhetoric?

  Vindictive "imagined public" a barricade to real reintegration   

For many who have broken the law, the real punishment begins not when they are processed into prison, but when they are finally ejected from their concertina-enclosed cages into a vengeful society that won't allow them to redeem themselves, branding them as forever bad.

Despite the stacked deck, some former prisoners do manage to find a sense of hope and turn their lives around. Such desistance is especially likely when society welcomes prisoners and restores their status as full citizens. Indeed, a study by Florida's Parole Commission found that prisoners whose civil rights were restored were far less likely to reoffend than those who remained unable to vote, hold public office, sit on juries, or obtain certain state licenses.

This process of criminal desistance is the topic of a new film out of Scotland. The Road from Crime -- a 48-minute film that can be viewed by clicking on the image below -- is narrated by Allan Weaver, a Scottish ex-offender turned probation officer and author of the book So You Think You Know Me? The script was co-written by my friend Shadd Maruna of the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Queen's University Belfast, who wrote the groundbreaking book, Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives.

Study: Reentry doesn’t equal reintegration

The film strikes an optimistic note, citing increasing government interest in alternatives to incarceration in these lean economic times. But a new study out of Colorado is less sanguine, at least as far as the USA is concerned. Even as policy makers give lip service to facilitating prisoners' successful "reentry" into the community, they cling to a risk reduction model that hamstrings true reintegration, the researchers found.

The researchers tracked the work of a Colorado state commission tasked with recommending changes in sentencing policies aimed at reducing sentencing costs while increasing efficacy. Analyzing the commission's discourse, study co-authors Sara Steen, Traci Lacock and Shelby McKinzey of the University of Colorado discovered that a powerful "imagined public" held these public servants hostage, forcing them to look over their shoulders and censor their humanistic impulses lest they be perceived as soft on crime.

The public of the commissioners' imaginations is a vengeful one, which promotes "victims’ rights" as antithetical to the rights of offenders. In this "zero-sum" wordlview (as David Garland labeled it in The Culture of Control), "concerns about offenders translate into attacks on victims and vice versa, so that actors have to forge an allegiance with one group or the other."
"This narrative implies that the real reentry problem is that this population is reentering society at all (if it were not for the expense, the reentry problem could be solved by keeping people who commit crimes in prison forever). The moral undertone to this narrative is one of anger and disgust toward (or, more mildly, frustration with) a group of dangerous people who need to be watched. [Former prisoners] are not people we want to help -- in part because they are, in some sense, beyond help…. [It] is clear that there is some interest in improving offenders' lives, but the main story driving the recidivism reduction narrative is that we (nonoffenders) should invest in reentry to make ourselves safer."
Indeed, risk-driven discourse has so become so naturalized that it takes a very active effort to step back and realize that it is only one of several possible ways of thinking about citizens who have committed crimes. Indeed, Shadd Maruna and Thomas LeBel (in an article available online) identified two dominant recidivism-reduction narratives:
  • The CONTROL NARRATIVE views ex-prisoners as dangerous creatures who require close supervision at all times.
  • The SUPPORT NARRATIVE regards ex-convicts as bundles of deficits with “needs” that must be attended to.
Although these narratives are superficially dissimilar, in essence they are fundamentally alike in that both dehumanize and problematize former offenders. Indeed, the so-called "risk/needs" paradigm so popular in forensic psychology circles arose squarely from the recidivism reduction discourse that overarches both the control and support narratives. As the researchers discovered in the Colorado case, much more time and energy is put into risk assessment than in providing the external resources necessary for change; “no matter how precisely one can measure an individual’s needs, without resources to attend to those needs the measurement is in some sense meaningless.”

Source: Steen et al (2012)
Imagined public: More vitriolic than actual public opinion?

The irony is that, in their hearts, many public officials and practitioners would like to do more for paroling prisoners, but are paralyzed by fear of a public that in reality may be less vengeful than they imagine. As Steen and her colleagues note:
"Commissioners routinely raised the specter of public discomfort with their recommendations, and they always assumed that the public was punitive and would oppose reforms that benefited offenders in any significant way. While the commissioners themselves had complex views of crime and punishment, they  almost universally assumed a deeply simplistic view on the part of the public, a view based on retribution  to the exclusion of all other considerations. Despite its mandate to continually draw on evidence to support its conclusions, the Commission completely ignored (or was unaware of) recent social scientific evidence of a shift in public opinion about crime and punishment."
They cited a 2002 poll conducted for the Open Society Institute in which the majority of those surveyed believed that the primary goals of the criminal justice system should be rehabilitation and crime prevention.

In other words, public officials may be generalizing about the public's attitudes based on a skewed perception created by handful of vocal -- and often rabid -- constituents. Because of this, public policy remains firmly entrenched in an irrational, hysterical loop tape from which escape is nigh impossible. As the Colorado researchers conclude:
"Many academics equate reentry with rehabilitation, and assume that the popularity of the reentry concept has resulted in discourse and policy that are friendly toward offenders, decreasing the distance between 'us' and 'them'. Our analysis suggests that reentry has not significantly changed the discourse, and we show how practitioners and policy-makers have molded the reentry concept to fit comfortably within the existing punitive discourse by focusing on recidivism reduction rather than reintegration…. In the end, we rather pessimistically conclude that the high hopes of many that reentry could fundamentally change the nature of punishment discourse in the 21st century is to date misplaced."

For more information about The Road from Crime and the wider desistance project visit the Discovering Desistance Blog. An evidence summary on desistance, How and why people stop offending, is also available online. The film was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and George Mason University.  In addition to Shadd Maruna, project members include Fergus McNeill of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow, Stephen Farrall of the University of Sheffield and Claire Lightowler of the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services.

The featured article is: Unsettling the discourse of punishment? Competing narratives of reentry and the possibilities for change by Sara Steen, Traci Lacock and Shelby McKinzey Punishment and Society 2012 14: 29 DOI: 10.1177/1462474511424681. Click HERE to request a copy from the first author.

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Anonymous said...

"retributive model focused on risk reduction..."

Retributive justice is not about risk reduction. You have mixed-up your distributive theories of punishment.

Cavall de Quer said...

Very interesting video (although I would have liked sub-titles occasionally!). Makes one shudder to think what effect the catastrophic unemployment figures of today are having on this process.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for your comment. You're right. I've modified that sentence.

If you go to the film's website, you can actually download the video with English subtitles. ;-)