Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, “Crime and Punishment” is the story of Raskolnikov, a man who contemplates then commits a violent crime. His inner turmoil severes him from society, and his struggle to reconnect is a theme as relevant today as it was in 18th century Russia.
Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald (Trib 5/10) and Katie Baird, a UWT professor (Trib 5/9) introduce us to their own versions of Raskolnikov: Pitts’ subject is a cynical inmate wondering how society is going to help him, while Baird’s is a reformed felon working and going to school to improve his own lot.
Pitts’ inmate sounds like the type of hardened individual who spends his adult life slipping in and out of custody, pausing only to feed an addiction or father illegitimate children. Baird’s ex-con is the self-motivator who only asks for a chance at a life free of the stigma of a felony record.
These are felons, albeit from opposite ends of the spectrum, whose incarceration cost taxpayers a great deal of money. The point of both columns is that assisting both is not only the right thing to do but also the most cost-effective.
So why does the thought of spending scarce public funds to help a hardened criminal cause a public gag reflex?
Though the question was meant to be rhetorical, allow me to answer: It violates our sense of fairness. From the moment a child learns the repercussion of stealing a sibling’s toy, pulling a classmate’s hair in kindergarten, showing up late to a team practice or cheating on a test, we know what that punishment is the result.
Unlike Pitts’ inmate, those of us who keep our feet in fair territory have no illusions about the treatment we will receive after our punishment. Whether it is school detention or a work suspension, we know that we will need to prove ourselves yet again.
Let me apologize for pointing out the obvious, but that is why the concept of forking over money to the true rule-breakers is such a hard sell.
It is also very obvious that our incarceration rate, which exceeds the rest of the free world, indicates a systemic failure. From a dollar standpoint, Pitts could argue, we would be much better off slicing a chunk out of our corrections system and investing in programs that would cut recidivism accordingly.
Super idea – when you find that program, check to see if the Holy Grail is hiding somewhere nearby.
Instead, our country needs to rethink our entire incarceration model. Currently we are building extremely expensive prisons while our school systems are rotting. We are fighting a war on drugs while failing to deal with our own inherent addictions. We are allowing multi-million dollar lawsuits to prevail against our own taxpayer funded probation system which holds us, you and me, responsible for the crimes of violent felons.
In other words, we are spending a lot of money and getting little in return.
And what about Baird’s ex-con, who wants nothing more than a chance to prove himself? Despite his diligent efforts, his own criminal record will remain poised above his head like the Sword of Damocles, killing any hope of a legitimate career.
The answer to this problem comes, again, from our first experiences. In the same classrooms and playgrounds where we learned about the consequences of our actions, we also learned about redemption. We all had our turn to sit in the corner, chill out in detention, or do laps after practice. We also had the opportunity, if our trespasses were not irredeemable, to reclaim our place in class or on the team.
When it comes to permanent records, the felony stamp is a one-size fits all. This is a harsh impediment for non-violent offenders striving to reclaim a place in society. If that opportunity does not exist, then slamming the door on people who are trying to change their lives could have negative consequences for everyone.
If you want to see what that feels like, I recommend you read “Crime and Punishment.”