Today, the LA Times has a really interesting profile on the Second Chance Women’s Re-entry Court program, a rehabilitation program and alternative to incarceration for women who commit non-violent crimes. The program is one of the first in the nation to focus on women in the criminal justice system:
Thirty miles east of Tynan’s courtroom, the women of the Re-entry Court program are housed in a Pomona drug treatment facility for women called Prototypes.
The complex has the look and feel of an elementary school, with bright-colored murals, playgrounds and dirt plots sprouting gardening projects. The dorms are painted in pastel shades, with the occasional motivational quote taped onto the wall.
Here, the women are referred to as clients or patients rather than defendants or inmates. Binders and book bags take the place of handcuffs and jail scrubs, and women shuttle between therapy, life- and job-skills classes, chores and support group meetings. Mothers are reunited with their young children and given counseling and parenting classes.
Behind closed doors, the path to recovery is slow and painful as women learn to open up about their past. Some lived on the street for decades, hustling or resorting to prostitution for the next fix. Many had their children taken away and had felt, at one point, that it would be best if they stayed away. All had addictions, often compounded by mental illness and histories of trauma and abuse.
“There are a few of them who come in so broken and so sick that you’re amazed that they’re alive,” said Nancy Chand, a deputy public defender who acts as the attorney for most of the women. “They come to realize that it wasn’t their fault that they were hurt. As that shame starts to come off, the confidence comes out.”
Their time here, a minimum of six months but longer for most, is designed to prepare them for another shot at life — be that a job at McDonald’s, a new relationship with their children or paralegal school.
I’m sure that the program inevitably has its flaws — indeed, it seems to me to still rely too heavily on an authority deciding who is and is not “deserving” of help and support. But so far, it is proving overwhelmingly successful.
And compared to prison, this is much, much closer to what the response to crime should be. Right now, the overwhelmingly dominant method of dealing with crime in the U.S. and many other nations has nothing at all to do with either preventing crime or reforming perpetrators, and has everything to do with punishing and further oppressing already marginalized populations. The evidence shows that violent authoritarianism convinces very few people to “turn their lives around” — and gives even fewer people the tools with which to do so. And it isn’t really even designed to. We know that prisons are a revolving door. And far too few people are asking themselves how to change that, rather than shrugging their shoulders or counting the profits the prison industry makes them.
Crime doesn’t come from nowhere, and neither do prison populations. Most crime is rooted in pervasive structural problems such as poverty, addiction, prior abuse, an inability to access mental health services, and systemic discrimination. There’s a reason that poor populations, people of color, trans* folks, etc. are highly overrepresented in the prison system. No, it’s not because marginalized people are more likely to have criminal inclinations. It’s because marginalization leads to the kind of circumstances in which crime seems like a genuine and/or unavoidable option. And because when we design a system that is set up entirely to punish people, it’s inevitable for said system to draw on oppressive ideas about who is most deserving of punishment.
And issues like prison rape are a huge problem, in very large part, because of attitudes that people who have committed crimes are deserving of crushing state authoritarianism, rather than compassion. Prisons are so full because we respond to addiction as a crime and a choice rather than a disease, and because we respond to crimes stemming from addiction with handcuffs and a locked door instead of with treatment. We remove people from their communities, separate them from their children, and place them in abusive environments, and then ask ourselves why they can’t function non-criminally once they are released. The answers are largely right in front of us, and we refuse to look at them because we’re still more wedded to the idea of making people “pay a price” than to the idea of human worth or even the goal of community safety.
Contrary to what you’ll hear many people argue, it’s certainly not about rehabilitative programs being too expensive:
The treatment, currently funded through a grant from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and donated services from Prototypes, costs about $18,000 for each woman per year. But compared with keeping them in prison and their children in foster care for years, the state is saving millions of dollars, the program’s organizers say.
Indeed, the state is apparently saving around $29,000 per woman per year.
Now, I’d personally rather spend more to get real results and avoid subjecting human beings to violence at the hands of the state, anyway. If re-entry programs cost more than incarceration, I’d still support them.
But they don’t. And I’d wager that the real reason that this myth about the high cost of such programs persists is because of how the money is being spent. The grumbling about inmates who have cable television tells us this much. We’re fine spending tens of thousands of dollars per inmate every year if it’s to lock them up in oppressive conditions, put them at risk of beatings and rape, feed them substandard food, and deny them adequate medical care. Spending less money to treat these same people like human beings of value and worth, though? It’s considered too much, because that, these people are seen as not deserving.
These programs aren’t a simple fix for all of society’s problems. They don’t address the issues that cause people to enter the criminal justice system in the first place. They might help individuals to work their way out of poverty, but they don’t address why so many people are poor to begin with. They may help individuals recover from addiction, but they don’t address how addiction starts. They may provide counseling to deal with the trauma of abuse, but that doesn’t stop victims from being raped, children from being beaten, slurs from being shouted on the street, or teenagers being kicked out of homes. They don’t even begin to look at how to deal with violent perpetrators. Further, issues like addiction have no one quick solution, and people often relapse. And as I’ve said, I’m sure that the Women’s Re-entry Court program specifically is far from perfect in terms of how it does what it does, and leaves many avenues for valid critique wide open.
But such programs are a start, a movement in the right direction. One action can’t adequately respond to centuries of abuse, oppression, and structural violence overnight, but that doesn’t make each part of the solution any less necessary.