By Jordan Berry

Change is slow, but in the context of criminal justice reform, it is also volatile. With the arrival of the Clinton administration in 1993, the nation seemed primed for a paradigm shift. Yet within a year, the political establishment and its constituents had reaffirmed their commitment to the conventional approach that presumed that punishment, usually through more severe punishment and longer prison sentences, was the primary deterrent to criminal behavior and containment through incarceration the most effective way to reduce crime. 

The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. When sent back into the world with nothing but lost time and the additional burden of a criminal record, however, an ex-offender has a 76.6 percent chance of being rearrested within five years. The punishment model may have compromised society’s ability to achieve true rehabilitative reform.  

Crime is a particularly polarizing issue in America. This politicization has made comprehensive reform all the more tedious and difficult. We tend to “otherize” people — treat them as if they are intrinsically different from ourselves — when they break the law. In doing so, we ignore the consensus of social scientists who argue that social inclusion decreases crime rates by raising the personal cost of committing them. By creating stronger personal, familial, and community bonds, people are less likely to commit crimes. (This process and framework is referred to as Cognitive Transformation Theory.) Indeed, given education and opportunities, ex-offenders rectify their own antisocial behaviors

The rehabilitation model is an approach to criminal justice that goes further than detention and release. It seeks to address the circumstances and attitudes that motivate individuals to commit crimes in the first place through specialized programs. Proponents of this model believe the key to reducing crime lies in education, opportunity, and reintegration. Since its fall from grace in the eyes of politicians and the public in the mid 70s, support for rehabilitation has come and gone in waves of unpredictable magnitude and duration. 

These waves dictate the amount of momentum reformers can harness at a given time to promote their agenda for rehabilitation. Any such progress is a testament to their patience and commitment to the cause. However, the people entering, serving time in, and leaving correctional facilities on a daily basis cannot afford to wait. The majority of crimes committed each year are economically motivated, and the employment barriers faced by ex-offenders only serve to exacerbate the issue. Recidivism becomes a rip-current that intensifies over time. Like all others, it is difficult but not impossible to escape. For some, the perpendicular path to freedom is entrepreneurship: an endeavor in which a healthy disregard for the rules is actually an asset. 

Larger, more organized efforts like the Prison Entrepreneurship Program and Defy Ventures help offenders hone their existing skills through rigorous business classes and one-on-one mentoring, the culmination of which is a complete business plan. The aforementioned programs boast recidivism rates of less than 10 percent among graduates. This statistic alone represents both a social and fiscal feat, as each ex-offender that does not recidivate reduces crime and frees up approximately $31,000 of taxpayer funding on an annual basis. These programs provide powerful testimony to the effectiveness of well designed rehabilitative programs for soon to be released offenders.

Those who choose the path of an entrepreneur have the opportunity to reclaim their lives on their own terms, saving themselves while bettering their own communities and making a meaningful contribution to the economy. A move away from the outdated and ineffective punishment approach toward one that recognizes the capacity of ex-offenders to reintegrate into society is a critical step toward achieving this policy goal.

Note: For more on criminal justice reform, entrepreneurship, and re-integration of formerly incarcerated people, see the DeVoe Moore Center supported research

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