An article in the Huffington Post proposes a novel alternative to the existing prisons system, prisons that are run by non-profit organizations (Huffington Post, “Nonprofit Floats Unusual Alternative To Private Prison”). The author, Saki Knafo, describes how “Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, or CURE, a prison reform group comprised mainly of former inmates, wants to convert a private jail in D.C. into what they say would be the first nonprofit lockup in the country, if not the world.”
America’s willingness to explore new alternatives to prison makes perfect sense, when you recognize that there is nothing especially “traditional” or sacrosanct about the use of imprisonment. Prison as an institution is only a little over two hundred years old. Imprisonment,, while the conventional response to criminal behavior today, was a rare and radical departure from the “Community-Based Sanctions” in place some 200 years ago.
As one commentator put it, “It is ironic and yet oddly appropriate that although eighteenth century America turned to imprisonment because alternative punishments had lost their ability to shame, late twentieth century America is turning to alternative punishments because imprisonment has lost its ability to deter and rehabilitate.” (Dan Kahan What do Alternative Punishments Mean; 63 U.Chi.L.Rev.591, p.631)
Even the prestigious Conference of Chief Justices, (made up of all fifiy State Supreme Court Justices) have passed unanimous resolutions in 2000, 2004, and 2008 acknowledging as much, “drug court and problem-solving court principles and methods have demonstrated great success in addressing certain complex social problems, such as recidivism, that are not effectively addressed by the traditional legal process”.
Living in a time when society has substantially broken down, where people lead isolated lives and where societal pressure may be minimal, community based courts have the potential to provide a structure for the rehabilitation of the offender, providing guidance, support, resources, and control where none had existed before.
In other words, the overuse of “imprisonment” is a choice that we have made, but can unmake, returning to our historical and traditional community-based responses to criminality.
[Click on video above, for “Slideshow” of San Francisco Reentry Court Family and Friends’ Barbecue]
THE BEST OF: The following article, initially published on Feb. 1, 2009, describes how Community remains the most effective means of behavioral control, and the most important factor in a successful court-based reentry process.
The powerful National Reentry Movement is substantially local government, community and volunteer driven. Reentry Court judges and other practitioners need to accept the notion that they can be a critical part of reentry reform, without being the controlling force.
The Reentry Court is the Drug Court model writ large. But conventional drug court processes and dynamics often stray from the model, and may not work well for a reentry court. Drug courts, for better or worse, are insular creatures of a judicial system, with judicial concerns; finding funding to support court structure, expanding resources to create effective court programs, and often dictating policy to a small group of community-based organizations (non-profit and otherwise). The historical reason for the court’s insularity are, to a significant extent, based on the courts’ fear of being monitored or controlled by outside organizations and individuals.
Our problem, is that an insular/controlling court can negatively impacts the problem-solving court field, (and the reentry court, in particular) by limiting the court’s ability to work within the community. While the courts should provide needed focus and participant accountability, the Reentry Community derives its extraordinary influence and impact from local government, as well as faith-based, fraternal, and other participating non- profit organizations. The federal government, in its ground breaking “Second Chance Act”, has taken an important step toward recognizing the importance of local community.
Let’s not forget that Problem-solving courts work, in large part because they emmulate (often, without realizing it) the most effective means of behavioral control, the communtiy itself. It is when community began to break down in the U.S. (about 200 years ago) that prisons were created, ultimately usurping the function that historically resided in the community ( See: An Introduction To Community-Based Courts).
Therer is an important final justification for looking to community for support, collaboration, and resources. While reentry funds are pouring into our communities from state and federal sources, in a desperate attempt to staunch overcrowded prisons and failed reentry strategies, there is no guarantee that those funds will continue to flow. Community is the most effective and least expensive resource available to the reentry court. Faith-based, fraternal, and othe volunteer organizations, are the foot soldiers of the reentry movement and stand ready to make a major contribution to your reentry court program; committed to restoring and healing their communites as they have from time immemorial. We, in the criminal justice system, need to engage them as equals and partners. The first question you and your court/community may need to ask, is what is your relationship with the greater community, are you an active member of your community’s “reentry task force”, and how can you strengthen the community of intervenors needed to meet the challenge of the returning ex-offender?
[Note: While the document below, was written in 1993, the issue of community-based funding for community-based courts remains unresolved: see Co-Funding Of Community-Based Courts ].