Saturday, January 22, 2011

Great Column on Prisoner Re-entry Program

For those that haven't seen it, the NY Times has a great post on prisoner re-entry on its Fixes blog. This has always been an area I find fascinating, societies keep pursuing failed policies for a variety of reasons even though there is no evidence of them working yet are so resistant to changing them, despite knowing that existing policies can't get much worse and some evidence other ways are better. For the US our attitudes towards criminals is the most visible example of this, we incarcerate vastly more people than any other comparable society yet don't have significantly different levels of crime. Yet people keep coming back to bizarre sociological explanations which don't stand up to comparative scrutiny rather than accept that attitudes towards justice and social welfare programs are the best conserved factor.

I'm getting off the point of the article though. The article covers various prisoner re-entry programs that seek to prevent recidivism through a variety of means. Also, it mentions that simply getting a former prisoner out of the environment they came from and letting them live somewhere else can greatly reduce recidivism.

This cuts to something that I think is at the root of a lot of our failed policies in this area. Part of American culture is to emphasize individual responsibility, which on its own is greatly beneficial, however it often comes along with downplaying, or even completely ignoring, social responsibility and the importance of social structures and groups in forming behavior. While it should be obvious that no one acts quite the same as an individual as they do when they are part of a group, we often pretend this isn't the case. However, there is so much data that people do change their behavior quite significantly depending on the people around them and their connections with it that we are simply being dishonest with ourselves when we ignore these factors, leading us to make the same bad decisions and policies over and over again when the problems are staring us in the face. Not sure what to do about it other than to point people in the direction of articles like this that make it undeniable that there are effects of the culture that someone ends up in and in their relationship to the broader group that they live in. Move someone back to the old neighborhood and they begin to act like they did there. Move them elsewhere and they have a chance to move on. Make a law forcing them to return to the old neighborhood achieves nothing but confirming our prejudices.

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