By Kyle T. Green
With the issue of prison overpopulation on the nation’s collective mind, a closer look at alternative sentencing trends may help to provide answers. Since 1997, total state and federal incarceration rates have gradually increased, by a total of about ten percent to date. The increase corresponds with a consistent decreasing trend in alternative sentencing such as probation, probation with confinement, and prison with community confinement. Perhaps more surprisingly, is the sizable disparity in alternative sentencing between citizens and non-citizens, linking the incarceration rate growth to the rise in non-citizen offenders in the federal sentencing population.
Alternative Sentencing Disparity
In a report entitled “Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System,” the United States Sentencing Commission found that, while non-citizens represent only 8.6% of the nation’s population, they comprise upwards of 15% of the total prison population and nearly 30% of the Federal prison population. According to the study, sentencing policies differ vastly between U.S. citizens and non-citizens, as non-citizens rarely receive alternative sentencing. For the purpose of comparing rates and procedures of citizens and non-citizens in the federal system, the USSC divides offender sentences into four zones:
- Zone A: 0-6 month confinement—probation only; probation with confinement; prison with community confinement; imprisonment
- Zone B: 1-12 months confinement—probation with community confinement can be substituted for imprisonment; one month of the total term imposed must be imprisonment
- Zone C: 8-16 months confinement—imprisonment for at least half of the minimum range of the sentence, with the remaining half in community confinement
- Zone D: 1 year-life—no probation or community confinement
The vast majority (between 86% and 95%) of non-citizens in Zones A, B and C were sentenced to prison, while far less U.S. citizens in corresponding zones were sentenced to imprisonment.
U.S. citizen offenders in Zone A have consistently been sentenced to probation at a rate of approximately 75 percent. Probation for non-citizen offenders in the corresponding zone had dropped to 13.1% in 2007, making the ratio of alternative sentencing almost six to one, of U.S. citizens versus non-citizens.
Trends are similar in Zones B and C: 30-50% of citizens are sentenced to probation versus 3-4% of non-citizens. Only in Zone D do sentences correlate. Zone D sentences do not fluctuate as much due to the harshness of the crimes involved. The great majority of both U.S. citizens and non-citizens are sentenced to prison for Zone D-related crimes.
Sentencing Policy and Antiquated Law
The explanation of this disparity lies in a mix of sentencing policy and antiquated law. For instance, illegal aliens are subject to deportation and account for approximately 80.3% of non-citizen Federal offenders. The Bureau of Prisons assigns deportable aliens to confinement at their second highest custody level, requiring institutional supervision and prohibiting work details or other programs outside the secure institution.
At the same time, since 1917 there has been a law which provides that immigrants can be deported only after they have served their sentences here in the U.S., in order to ensure that they were adequately punished. Therefore, an illegal immigrant who is convicted of a crime, even an immigration offense, is automatically sent to Federal prison, where they must serve their sentence with little to no chance for parole or other alternatives before they can be deported.
Deportation Loophole as a Solution to Prison Overpopulation
Now, a loophole does exist that allows immigrants to be deported without serving their full sentences if they were convicted of non-violent offenses. However, the appropriate power must request early deportation and correction officials almost never use the exception. Thus, it is clear that some change must be made in the imprisonment-before-deportation rule to reduce the number of non-violent illegal immigrants being held in the system. Amending the law to allow for immediate deportation of immigration related offenses could, not only balance the disparity of alternative sentencing, but ease overcrowding and prison budget crises as well.
Kyle T. Green is a criminal defense attorney in Mesa, Arizona. Mr. Green has handled cases on both sides of the law and is a passionate advocate for justice.
By Jack Meyers
As alternative sentencing gains in popularity, many will wonder just how this form of “punishment” enlightens offenders. Instead of sticking people in jail to think about what they have done—usually devising better ways to be criminals—literature and support groups can help offenders realize how their decisions affect those around them.
Characters and stories in literature can impact how an individual processes information. A well written novel correlating to an offender’s specific crime can create more of a positive impact on the offender’s mind, compared to being locked up. How can literature be so inspiring to those who read it?
1. Caring about what happens
Well written novels can develop characters that readers can connect with on an emotional level. These connections can stir emotions as tribulations unfold within the novels causing readers to care about what happens to the characters.
Connecting with literary characters can lead offenders to emotionally bond with the stories. Understanding the characters’ decisions can help offenders begin to understand why circumstances happen and how to deal with them in ways other than breaking the law.
2. Analyzing the affects of actions
If offenders can discover how their actions affect the world around them, it could lead to enlightening realizations of how their actions hurt those involved.
The imagination is a powerful tool. It can create objects of wonder or items of destruction. Using their imaginations could help them realize the damage they have wrought with their actions. By helping offenders analyze their circumstances in relation to literature, there is a good chance that they will have an epiphany about their own experiences and how their surroundings were affected.
3. Getting support
One of the most important aspects of alternative sentencing through literature is the presence of supportive individuals who help offenders discuss the nature of each chosen novel.
Most of the support groups using alternative sentencing methods consist of visits by parole officers and the judges who sentenced the offenders. This could be a vital piece of the puzzle—it shows the offenders that there are those that care about whether they succeed or not.
Whether it is the Bible or a coveted novel, the stories and characters in books can reveal a lot about who you are. This isn’t saying that books can cure all criminal intentions, but they can go a long way in helping some offenders see how their actions can lead to a ripple effect in the pond of life.
Jack Meyers is a regular contributor for www.nannybackgroundcheck.com. As a detective he wants to spread the knowledge of the terrible things that can happen when people don’t fully verify the credentials of a caregiver or any employee. He also writes for various law enforcement blogs and sites.
Judge Bettina Borders, of Bristol County Juvenile Court, was named 2012 SouthCoast Woman of the Year. She made “contributions to the community as a justice and activist,” according to the New Bedford (MA) Standard-Times. Her work includes making use of alternative sentencing programs such as Changing Lives Through Literature.
Read reporter Natalie Sherman’s full article about this amazing Woman of the Year.
Is someone in your community changing lives for the better? Tell us about that person.
To submit brief comments, use the comments link at the top of this post. To submit longer comments, or to include images, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We look forward to hearing about the remarkable, and perhaps under-recognized, people in your communities.
–Nancy E. Oliveira, Editor
By Sara Dawkins
While reading, you use your imagination to visualize a story’s characters as if they’re starring in a movie within your mind. Although the author’s words greatly impact the flow of your mind-movie, your imagination fills in the blanks. Reading about characters who have similar circumstances to yours can help shed light on your own situation. This is one of the base beliefs behind the alternative sentencing program called Changing Lives Through Literature. How can literature encourage positive change in a criminal’s way of thinking?
1. Reflection: When offenders openly analyze their own lives through literary characters, they get a chance for inner reflection that they may never have explored before. They put themselves in the spotlight for self-examination.
2. Positive Role Models: After ordering CLTL classes as part of sentencing, judges may attend the classes involving the offenders-turned-students. By contributing to the literary discussions, the judges start becoming positive role models in the students’ lives—possibly changing how the students view the world. Parole officers can become role models just as much by participating in the students’ progress in the classes. This can greatly increase the chances of rehabilitation and reduce the likelihood of re-offending.
3. Self-Worth: In order for the program to work, students must have a capacity to accept responsibility for their actions. Students must show and demonstrate that they can be proactive in their own rehabilitation. For some, it is difficult to rely only on themselves to stay motivated enough for better lives. Family histories can be pivotal to how students adapt to this method of rehabilitation.
4. Perspective: This alternative method of sentencing is more than just a book club. The literary works chosen reflect students’ lives—either through the characters or the situations. It’s a way for students to examine their actions from the perceptions of others. As their imaginations explore the settings, the literature often drives a point home better than more jail time would.
5. Safety: The philosophy behind CLTL is such that it allows students to feel safe when discussing literature. Students open themselves up and discuss the actions of literary characters, and how the characters relate to themselves.
Alternative sentencing methods for criminal offenders has had great success. Support is growing for methods such as these. Words can be powerful to those who are open to their meanings. We should embrace the success of CLTL and support rehabilitation over punishment to those who need it and who are willing to benefit from it.
Sara Dawkins is an active nanny as well as an active freelance writer. She is a frequent contributor of http://www.nannypro.com/.
Lessons: Stories that connect from Stories Connect
By Sally Flint
People’s lives have been changed not only by reading and discussing literature, but by writing creatively too. In Exeter, England, this has culminated in publishing a book of linked short stories and poems. This book is Lessons and it comes from Stories Connect—a community project, similar in format to Changing Lives Through Literature, that takes place outside prisons to help ex-offenders, substance misusers and other vulnerable people get over difficult times in their lives.
In 2011, after reading Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads and Andrea Levy’s Small Island, discussions centred on the significance of characters in storytelling, how our lives interconnect, and how perceptions of one another can be very different according to our individual experiences. Rather than read more texts to illustrate this, both the participants and facilitators of Stories Connect began a collaborative writing experiment.
Each person invented a character—then got to know his imaginary person through answering a questionnaire which not only detailed a physical description and obvious things such as what the character did for a job, but also smaller things such as what the character kept under his bed. Once each character was firmly established in each writer’s mind the group discussed how the characters’ lives might overlap and be brought together. Part of the success of this collection is that each writer firmly took ownership of his own imaginary character and stepped into his character’s shoes.
However, to bring the characters together it was decided something more was needed—an event. Parties and weddings and all sorts of other occasions were brainstormed and somehow, out of talking about school reunions, the idea surfaced that the characters would all attend a memorial service for a recently retired headmaster, Keith Simon Lung.
Everyone discussed, debated and created—then each person wrote his character’s story in a way that linked to the headmaster and his memorial. The stories took months to shape, edit and bring together as an anthology. This process fostered an environment of trust and commitment. It motivated both participants and facilitators to further improve their communicative and observational skills. Everyone worked hard to make each story stand alone, while ensuring there are many intriguing links to be made across the whole collection and questioned by the reader.
Some of the contributors had never written a story or poem before while some had read and written lots. Perhaps what this book reveals best, and why the group wanted it published, is to show how the process of writing brought them together. The result, Lessons, proves that stretching imaginations and the practice of storytelling unites people at all levels, regardless of age, background, ethnicity or past histories. In the process of creating, the group encountered the unexpected and overcame challenges and, it has to be said, they all laughed lots!
“This is a consummate piece of group story-telling, a feat of cooperation and collaboration,” writes poet and broadcaster Matt Harvey in the book’s forward. He supports and works with Stories Connect.
Lessons is published by Dirt Pie Press, University of Exeter: www.riptidejournal.co.uk
For more information, e-mail either:
Dr. Sally Flint, facilitator and publisher: email@example.com
Louise Ross, Stories Connect co-ordinator: firstname.lastname@example.org
Listen to Dr. David Sherman of Brandeis University interview Changing Lives Through Literature co-founder Dr. Robert Waxler. They talk about the relationship between literature and jail in this “Convicted Reading” Literature Lab podcast.
By Bettina Borders and Estella Rebeiro
One day several years ago, Katherine Knowles, the director of the Zeiterion, approached the Juvenile Court to offer the possibility for court-involved youth to attend Zeiterion performances. Ms. Knowles envisioned the Z as a valuable community resource and wanted to extend it’s reach to include everyone. In her mind, this also meant the kids most folks want to forget.
There are many words used to describe these kids, trouble makers, delinquents, “druggies,” problem kids, misguided, etc. Ms. Knowles thought that perhaps some of them could find something at the Z to facilitate “turning them around.” It sounded good to the court. Why not try it. By and large these were kids with little opportunity to attend the Z on their own resources. Thus through the vision of Ms. Knowles and the generosity of her board, an ostensibly unlikely partnership began. Under the supervision of probation, young people from our court, and often their families, began to attend the varied theatrical performances offered by the Z.
There were several permutations to this partnership, which is part of two alternative sentencing initiatives supervised by probation and the court. At one point Ms. Knowles identified an anonymous donor who wanted to have the kids attend the theater in style. A limousine appeared at the courthouse, picked the kids up and drove them around various scenic areas of the city before dropping them, and their parents, at the Z. Later they were picked up and returned to the courthouse.
At another time, the youth participating in an alternative sentencing program, Changing Lives Through Literature, read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and later attended the play, courtesy of the Z. There have been plays, musicals, storytelling, dance, theater and magic performances these youth have had the opportunity to see. But the question remains: What has it meant?
For most of these youth and their families, this is an extraordinary experience. First, they are having a wonderful experience together, one that most of us take for granted. The probation officers who accompany these youth have watched while the demeanor of these kids transforms as the evening unfolds. They are indistinguishable from the rest of the audience; polite, engaged, attentive, well behaved, well dressed, inquisitive, mesmerized by the magical extravaganzas they are watching. They are out of their “comfort zone” and yet “belong” in this new environment. It is wonderful to hear about as the probation officers report back to the court.
But the transformation does not end there. The youth are asked to write about their experiences or discuss them in groups. Each youth is excited, energized and articulate when dissecting the play or gushing over the virtuosity of dancers or musicians. Many “thank yous” by letter and by mouth are sent by the youths. Another lesson learned. These are experiences we want for all of the youth in our community and Ms. Knowles and the Board of the Z must be commended for making them accessible to those teens least likely to find their way to the beautiful Z.
Art, we know, can transform people, all people. Ms. Knowles and her board have set a high standard for accessibility to art. One that can be replicated in many other areas of our community, particularly for youth. Our youth have much to learn from its leaders and the places frequented by them. Our court certainly appreciates the efforts made by the Z to include these youth. As Ms. Knowles says at the beginning of a performance: “Let the magic begin.” Perhaps she is on to something.
Honorable Bettina Borders is first justice of Bristol County Juvenile Court in New Bedford. Estella Rebeiro is senior probation officer. This op-ed was originally posted in the South Coast Today.
By Jeffrey Roe
Most people intending to become librarians often have strong memories associated with their school libraries and the people who worked in them. Those memories are likely what draws some librarians back to primary school, where they work to foster and promote literacy, learning, and, simply, a love of books. Others opt to go into research, working in high profile special collections with fragile documents full of unique information or of particular significance to history.
Few library students probably envision working in a prison library as their ideal place of employment. Contrary to what you might think, working as a prison librarian isn’t a maligned path so much as an overlooked one; it’s simply not a job on most people’s radar. This is unfortunate, as working in a prison library offers librarians a unique environment, one that is proactive in promoting education, literacy, and civic engagement, among other ideals closely related to the mission of libraries everywhere.
Becoming a prison librarian isn’t particularly difficult. As with all professional libraries, prison librarians must have a degree in library science, generally at the master’s level (MLS). Experience working in a civilian library (such as a school or public library) is also generally required. Some experience working in corrections is also ideal, but not required; it’s simply a good idea to understand the constraints that prison puts upon both the incarcerated and those who serve them. You could accomplish this by volunteering at a prison.
It’s important to understand what a library is to someone who’s been incarcerated: It is a place where inmates escape from the drudgery of day-to-day life, where they learn to improve their literacy, write letters, watch instructional videos and so much more. Prison libraries don’t differ much from public libraries in terms of content, though some do have dedicated legal sections. Prison libraries even sometimes host book clubs! Library services can be integrated with other services for the incarcerated, like visitation.
Prison libraries, like public libraries, suffer at the whims of state finances, but differ from their public counterparts in other significant ways. Internet is often unavailable to inmates or librarians; when it is available to librarians, it is only during hours when inmates are not present. Prison librarians also act as corrections officers, taking on the responsibility of supervising both the inmates working in the library and those using its services. Generally, inmates tend to treat librarians with a degree of respect since the services the library provides offer prisoners a respite from prison life and a way to better themselves and their situation. Prisoners who engage in educational programs, such as library services, tend to stay out of prison upon release at higher rate than those without access to such programs. Just another reason to consider becoming a prison librarian.
Jeffrey Roe is the community manager for the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. USC Rossier Online provides current teachers and those working on becoming a teacher with the opportunity to earn a masters in education completely online. In his free time, Jeff enjoys attending concerts and developing his talents as a videomaker.
By Sandy Atwood
“The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” – Michael Brunner, Retarding America: The Imprisonment of Potential.
As a Research Fellow at the National Institute of Justice, Michael Brunner drew a very stark link between poor reading skills and criminal conviction. A recent (2010) study has shown that 85% of all persons who are remanded to juvenile courts are functionally illiterate. Among adults, 70% of all inmates cannot read above the 4th grade level, and 60% are functionally illiterate. It is, of course, only one symptom of a matrix of conditions which lead to crime, but it is at least an area in which concrete improvement can be made and, perhaps, through such improvement the matrix can be changed.
While literacy programs, particularly prison-based, are not panaceas, they can benefit criminal offenders. In order to motivate offenders to improve their literacy, however, there must be some clear benefit. The following four advantages for prison inmates can be presented as inducements for inmates to improve their reading skills and to begin to read on a regular basis. These incentives are arranged from the most personal – even selfish – to larger and more long-term benefits.
Doing Time Between the Covers
Incarceration is boring. Yes, there is always the potential for violence – sometimes punctuated with active onslaught – but, for the most part, it is a life of monotony. This is why, for generations, the slang term for being in prison has been “doing time.” Entertainment of any kind is valued, which is why sports, games, hobbies and television are appreciated to such a high degree. If an inmate can be convinced of the entertainment value of reading as a pleasurable (and non-violent) means of spending time, the incentive for striving for better reading skills to enable him or her to read for enjoyment is that much greater. It allows an inmate to indulge in one of the great positive values of reading: Escapist fiction.
All human beings – and perhaps especially criminal offenders – have a tendency to believe that their situations are unique. Obviously, by being in prison, an inmate shares a common experience with many others, but there is still an isolating feeling that they are experiencing something that has never, quite happened to anyone else. Literature, biographies and history texts are replete with examples of others who have not only shared any individual convict’s experience, but have risen above that situation. It can be called “inspirational” reading, in the sense that the reader can experience a way out of his current situation; by reading about how others have overcome adversity can motivate him to attempt to do the same.
Even beyond individual isolation, criminal offenders are often socially and geographically isolated. They often grown up in and lived in a narrowly bound area – a defined neighborhood – and have a limited number of friends and acquaintances. No medieval villager has ever lived so bounded a life as many modern criminal offenders, even outside prison. By improving their reading skills, and practicing them, an inmate has literally the entire length and breadth of human history – and beyond – and all the earth – and beyond – to explore. This is more than escapism, it is a revelation that there are other possibilities, other places and other futures than what they had ever considered before.
A Library Ladder
If, as is often the case, a criminal offender has not experienced much success in a formal classroom setting, literature can provide a self-guided, self-motivated and self-taught course of education. Auto didacts can often achieve amazing results in broadening their knowledge, language skills and motivation for a less painful life. This is particularly true if, once a reader realizes what a treasure lies at their fingertips, they have a mentor to guide them on some of the possible styles, authors and genres they might have otherwise missed.
There is an old saying, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, all the problems look like nails.” Literature can provide criminal offenders with an entire toolbox from which to choose solutions. No, literature is not a single remedy for all the troubles of the world, but it can add to the value to a troubled life.