Where Crime Begins
Would you believe that our wonderful democracy has by far the greatest number of prisoners and the highest rate of incarceration in the world?
The size of our prison population today has become a physical and economic burden as well as a national embarrassment. The United States has over two million people in state and federal jails, seven times the prison population of the European Union and Great Britain combined; and our rate of incarceration is 22 percent higher than Russia’s notorious Gulag Archipelago. State budgets, already at the breaking point, are overburdened with the cost of maintaining this non-productive prison population, while the social cost is incalculable.
Connecticut is no exception. We spend $2 billion annually and 11 percent of our budget on the criminal justice system. Just our prison population of 18,000 costs us $79 million. Recidivism is a major problem. Over half of those released each year will be rearrested within two years, and half of those are returned to prison.
Family ReEntry (FRE), a Bridgeport-based nonprofit organization supported by state and private funds, addresses this problem with its Fresh Start program. Prerelease counseling of prisoners and post-release mentoring helps the ex-offenders reestablish themselves in the community and with their families in a healthy and productive way. A broad array of services, including skills training, behavior counseling plus housing and employment assistance, help the ex-offender face the daunting challenges of adjusting to the world outside and the temptation to backslide.
The organization also focuses on domestic violence, the reason many offenders land in prison in the first place. Through counseling coordinated with police, probation officers and the state’s Court Support System, Family ReEntry attempts to provide a safe alternative to incarceration. Its violence intervention, education and treatment programs have kept over 1,000 perpetrators a year out of prison, saving taxpayers many millions of dollars and diminishing the cycle of violence and abuse. Active throughout Fairfield County, its operations in Norwalk and Stamford have been named model programs by the state for their reduction of recidivism.
Efforts to reduce domestic violence bear directly on solving the most critical challenge of all: How to break the generational cycle of crime. Children who are raised in a chaotic and violent family environment are often psychologically and emotionally impaired and struggle in school with learning disabilities. Behavior problems are common and 78 percent end up in the criminal justice system. Equally devastating can be the incarceration of the family’s breadwinner, who leaves the family impoverished while in prison. The children are left without a father or a mother and faced with the stigma of a convict parent. There are an estimated 4,000 children with an incarcerated parent in Greater Bridgeport alone, and they are seven times more likely to go to prison themselves.
Family ReEntry’s Champions Program is specifically designed to serve children with one or both parents in prison. Meeting weekly with them at their schools and in the community, mentors serving as role models work to develop a child-adult relationship of trust and respect. Tina Banas, manager of FRE’s youth mentoring program, describes just one of many cases:
Josiah (not his real name) is a 14-year-old boy in Bridgeport currently in 8th grade. Both of his parents are in prison, and he is living with his grandmother. Two years ago FRE’s youth mentoring director matched him with a mentor, Bruce from Wilton, who has visited him at school weekly. Bruce became concerned when he discovered that Josiah couldn’t read. On Josiah’s birthday he had presented him with a typed letter praising his progress, only to find he had to read it to him. The school staff knew he had a learning disability and believed he was reading at the 3rd grade level but had attributed this to delayed development. The mentoring program director located a psychologist willing to do an evaluation at a reduced rate and a donor who would foot the bill. The diagnosis was severe dyslexia.
The mentor uncovered the problem, sought a solution and continues to maintain a close bond with Josiah, encouraging his interest in science and nature, and helping him gain self-confidence. Bruce knew that without a high school education, the boy’s future was dim.
The importance of education in breaking the generational cycle of crime and poverty was confirmed in a recent column by Nicholas Kristof in the Sunday New York Times entitled “Do we Invest in Preschools or Prisons?” In it he states, “…mountains of evidence suggest that the best way to address American economic inequality, poverty and crime is early education programs…,” then, “A rigorous study by David Deming of Harvard found that Head Start graduates were less likely to repeat grades or be diagnosed with a learning disability, and more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.
“We’ll have to confront the pathologies of poverty at some point”, he concludes. “We can deal with them cheaply at the front end, in infancy. Or we can wait and jail a troubled adolescent at the tail end.”