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Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Release of a Dangerous Man

Colorado has released a sexually violent predator back into society. In Colorado that label is applied to the worst of our sex offenders. In this case, the man was convicted of raping a 17-year-old girl while she was incapacitated by drugs and/or alcohol. The conviction was a long time ago, but it seems the offender refused to cooperate with in-prison therapy programs and thus remains a high-risk offender.

My position on this is mixed. On one hand, I believe that everyone can change and should be given a second chance in our society. On the other hand, he has shown no desire or attempt to change. This is NOT a good situation. Personally, I think Colorado should go back to the old sentencing guidelines on sex offenders. It use to be that the sentence was one year to life, allowing the parole board some discretion in how to handle each individual. They could go easy on a Romeo-and-Juliet offender, while keeping ones that seemed likely to be a danger in prison indefinitely. Now, once an offender has completed the maximum sentence (4-32 years, depending on the crime), the parole board has no choice but to release him on mandatory parole. The current laws also dictate lengthy mandatory minimums that have been described by most legal experts as draconian.

My position is further mixed by my animosity towards SVPs. In my book, those who pose a true threat to our society are treated too lightly, but in response to this, in an effort to appear 'tough on crime', our legislators are going overboard in my opinion. Statistically, longer prison sentences are NOT as effective as our legislators would have us believe during election years and, in my humble opinion, may be making the situation even worse.

James A. Baldwin, I believe, put it best:
The most dangerous creation
of any society is the man
with nothing to lose.

This goes not only for ever increasing prison sentences, but for the so called 'habitual offender' laws as well. The longer the sentence the offender knows he may be facing, the more willing he is to violently and/or desperately act to avoid it when discovered. How many times have we heard in recent years of three time losers shooting it out with police rather than go back to prison?

I, personally, would like to see more efforts at crime prevention by addressing the core causes of crime and in reforming the offenders through mandatory therapy participation and education opportunities when they are returned to society, if not in the prisons themselves during their incarceration.

What's that you say? Wouldn't that be expensive? The answer is yes and no. In the short-term, the cost would be greater to establish and deliver the necessary services and training, but in the long-term the cost would be less by helping the offender better reintegrate into society, becoming a contributing member, rather than costing more in the form of further law enforcement and incarceration expenses.

Of course, the society itself has to help in this matter. In a poll a couple years ago, it was found that almost two-thirds of all employers stated they would NOT hire an ex-felon for any reason, any position, and without regards to how long ago the crime was and what efforts the ex-felon had taken to reform themselves. I believe this attitude is counterproductive. We say we want the ex-offender to become a law-abiding community member and contribute positively to our society, yet the majority of employers don't want to give them the chance to do so.

House Wyldstar may have an answer to this situation, but we are going to need help. Our idea is the creation of companies specifically for the employment of ex-offenders, including ones like the SVP I described earlier. The employment environment could be monitored to ensure desirable behavior of the participants. This would be especially important in dealing with SVP cases. A monitored, protected work environment would improve the chances of all participants in successfully reintegrating into society and improve recividism rates. Ex-offenders who have successfully reintegrated could act as advisors and mentors for those who are just beginning the transition, or who may be having some difficulty in the process. Creating a stable and safe work environment for ex-offenders would be an excellent first step.

Another answer would be to 'ban the box' on job applications that asks about convictions or arrests. The asking about arrests that did not end in a conviction should be banned outright and questions about convictions should be limited to job-related issues and/or time-limited (7-10 years sounds about right). The asking about arrests that did not end in a conviction is a fundamental insult to everyone. It is VERY easy to be arrested for a charge that one did not commit. To hold the fact of any arrest without a conviction against a person for any reason is a clear violation of civil and constitutional rights, punishing the individual by making it legal to discriminate against them without cause. The second point, regarding actual convictions, is that many times the criminal conviction has NOTHING to do with the job being applied for and/or was so long ago that society can and should presume the offender to be rehabilitated.

Another change I would make is in the prisons themselves. At one time, inmates were required to perform many laborious tasks such as working farm fields around the prison to supply food for the prison, chain-gangs that worked on the roadways, or making license plates used by the DMV. Some states still have these in place-most do not. Instead of letting many offenders stay in their cells watching TV all day, playing games, or working out on weight equipment, let's put them to work. Require them to either work in government supporting operations or to attend education programs and classes that can prepare them for reintegrating with society. This would give them more of an incentive and the abilities to make it work when they are released from prison, having giving them SOMETHING along the lines of job-related skills.

Changes like these will obviously not come easy. They will require effort on the part of our entire society. But we will all benefit from them in the long run. Eliminating conditions that drive many ex-offenders into additional criminal conduct will drastically reduce our crime rate and subsequently the cost of operating our judicial and penal systems. I anticipate the strongest resistance to this idea from those who profit from those costs, namely the lawyers and prison management officials.

And just think ... these ideas are coming from a disabled ex-offender!

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