“Some people cannot be rehabilitated” is a common response to suggestions for prison reform. More times than I can count, I have had people ask me, “Well, what about the people that cannot be rehabilitated?” Assuming arguendo that this is an accurate statement, focus on this topic is misguided and hinders prison reform efforts, in part, by instilling fear amongst the general American population.
In backing up the assertion that some people are beyond rehabilitation, proponents of that mindset frequently point to serial killers and child rapists. “Are you trying to tell me a serial killer or a child rapist can be rehabilitated? That is bogus!,” they proclaim.
Millions of individuals cycle through our nation’s jails and prisons each year. The amount of people behind bars facing drug charges is rampant. In fact, according to The Prison Policy Initiative, one in five incarcerated persons is locked up from a drug offense. Additionally, local jails house one out of every three incarcerated individuals, and the majority of those in jails are presumed innocent as they await prosecution.
Out of those behind bars who fall into the violent offender category, a minority of the offenders are in custody for rape. Likewise, a minority of violent offenders are in detention for murder. Moreover, these statistics do not take into account the type of rape or murder for which the person is in custody. Most people can agree that statutory rape—an eighteen year old having intercourse with his sixteen year old girlfriend, for instance—is much less serious than other rape charges. Even fewer individuals in custody for rape and murder are child rapists or serial murderers.
The statistics show that even if it is true that certain people cannot be rehabilitated, the portion of the population that society is most worried about is a very small segment. The overwhelming majority of people behind bars can rehabilitate as long as society provides the proper support and resources. By focusing attention on the very small sliver of the incarcerated population that cannot improve for the better, society is denying the many people who can be rehabilitated a suitable opportunity to transform.
In all groups of people, there are bad apples. If you look hard enough, you will find corrupt politicians. You will find unethical attorneys. You will discover crooked law enforcement officers. There are some atrocious mothers and fathers in the world. There are teachers who do not care about the students. In every profession and in every area of life, you can find the anomalies.
Aberrations do not and should not reflect on humankind as a whole. Think about a world where Child Protective Services whisked all children away just because there are a few unfavorable parents. The government, due to the behavior of an atypical minority, would punish a staggering number of amazing, loving, and supportive parents. The lost opportunity for the majority of children to grow up with their biological parent or parents in a loving household and the resulting negative effects of the government stripping away children from their biological parents significantly outweigh the harm to a small minority of children who are not raised in a nurturing environment.
Imagine a situation where a child gets in trouble at school for repeated truancy. The school gave the student multiple previous chances, but he never changed. The school responds not only by expelling the student for the various violations, but also by changing the school rules to state that after a single unexcused absence, all students will be expelled. Due to one student’s behavior, the school concludes, once a truant, always a truant. A student who is late to school on one occasion, but has a desire to learn and will ensure that truancy will ever happen again, will watch his or her future shatter as many doors close when he or she is expelled.
Envision a world where the government provides no children an education because of a select few who squandered the opportunity. By observing the deplorable conduct of a miniscule number of youth, the legislature decides that no children will succeed through formalized education, and thus, concludes that school is a waste of money, time, and resources. The government denies the prospect of success to students who would excel in the world with an appropriate academic foundation. Consequently, the harm inflicted on the students deprived of an education is greater than any resulting loss from the resources and financial aid pillaged by those who refused to apply themselves in school.
Of course, these are extreme examples, but the purpose is to illustrate the slippery slope of creating rules based on the actions of an outnumbered group. We can always find bizarre examples to illustrate why society should not focus on rehabilitation. However, doing so is not realistic.
By convincing ourselves that not everyone can make positive changes in his or her life, we are effectively blocking the path to transformation for many others. Give people a chance to rehabilitate. Do not use a few bad experiences as an excuse to bring down additional members of society. Everyone deserves opportunities to demonstrate that they, in fact, can change. Everyone deserves resources to help him or her prosper. Let us make success possible for those caught up in the criminal justice system.