“Recidivism is predictable”

Last year, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The law was an attempt to address the disparity in sentencing for drug offenses involving crack cocaine and other forms of cocaine. Someone convicted of trafficking in crack received a much longer sentence than if he sold an equal weight of powdered cocaine.

I knew this from my interviews with inmates at USP Canaan, some of whom are serving life sentences for selling crack.

An article in today’s New York Times reported that in June the United States Sentencing Commission voted to make the sentencing guidelines retroactive, with an effective date of October 31, 2011. The result? As many as 1,800 inmates are due for immediate release from prison. Over time, as many as 12,000 inmates could have their sentences reduced by an average of three years as a result of the new guidelines.

Not everyone is happy about this, according to the Times:

“William Otis, a former federal prosecutor and special White House counsel under the first President George Bush, said that since recidivism is predictable, the releases would inevitably lead to more crime. ‘Why, when we hear in such specifics about the alleged benefits of the forthcoming releases, we do not also and simultaneously hear about the additional crime to which they will lead?’ he said.”

Mr. Otis is right about how predictable recidivism is. Depending on whose statistics are being cited, as many as two-thirds of released prisoners commit crimes for which they are returned to prison within three years.

The high rate of recidivism, however, does not justify draconian sentences. What it should do is incentivize governments to invest more in the kinds of programs and interventions that will change inmates’ minds and hearts while they are still in prison. This is, I readily admit, a monumental task. But the good news is that we know which programs and interventions are the most effective at reducing recidivism. Most of them are faith-based. (I’ll write more about this in the future when I post a review of Byron Johnson’s book, More God, Less Crime).

Investing in inmates in a manner that gives them a chance to change their minds and hearts is the reason I minister in a federal penitentiary. And I do not believe I am wasting my time.

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