This piece first appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat.
Struggling to re-enter society with nothing but lost time and the additional burden of a criminal record, ex-offenders have a 76.6% chance of being rearrested within five years.
This is dramatic evidence of the failure of the so-called “punishment” or “retributive” approach to criminal justice, which promises to deter crime by making offenses more costly for the individual. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the way we approach criminal justice in Florida.
Crime is a polarizing issue in America, making comprehensive reform difficult. We tend to “otherize” people — treat them as if they are intrinsically different from ourselves — when they break the law.
In doing so, we ignore a consensus among social scientists who point out that social inclusion rather than ostracism reduces crime rates, because it raises the personal cost for offending. People with stronger personal, family and community bonds are less likely to commit crimes.
Indeed, given education and opportunities, ex-offenders often change their own antisocial behaviors. A rehabilitative approach more directly addresses the circumstances and attitudes that motivate individuals to commit crimes in the first place.
Most crimes are economically motivated. The employment barriers faced by ex-offenders only exacerbate the problems associated with returning to society.
Another arrest compounds the problems faced by ex-offenders, creating a rip-current against re-integration that intensifies over time.
Some rehabilitative programs show promise in breaking away from this pattern. Entrepreneurship, for example, helps marginalized individualized rebuild their lives by creating wealth and channeling a healthy disregard for rules into a personal and community asset.
Efforts like the Prison Entrepreneurship Program and Defy Ventures help offenders hone their existing skills through rigorous business classes and one-on-one mentoring, the culmination of which is a complete business plan.
These programs boast recidivism rates of less than 10 percent among graduates. This statistic alone represents both a social and fiscal feat, as each ex-offender who stays out of the criminal justice system reduces crime and frees up approximately $20,000 of Florida taxpayer funding annually.
These programs provide powerful testimony to the effectiveness of well-designed rehabilitative programs for soon-to-be released offenders.
Those who choose the path of an entrepreneur have the opportunity to reclaim their lives on their own terms. They empower and save themselves while bettering their own communities and making a meaningful contribution to the economy.
More importantly, they show that individuals who at one point in their lives may have undermined community welfare, can become an asset and role model for others.
Moving Florida toward a criminal justice system that recognizes the capacity of ex-offenders to reintegrate into society is a critical step toward achieving a number of policy goals, including lowering recidivism and the costly burden of the criminal justice system.
Entering society with a productive entrepreneurial mindset is one important step on this path to reducing prison populations long-term and promoting social integration.
Jordan Berry is a senior pursuing a dual degree in International Affairs and Social Work at Florida State University and is a research intern for the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy.
The feature image is from Wiki Commons.