Who Are The Offenders?

Correctional policy may be based on
an inaccurate assessment of the offender population

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Justice (IC#38)
Originally published in Spring 1994 on page 15
Copyright (c)1994, 1997 by Context Institute

Walter Dickey, a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, was director of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections from 1983 to 1987.

After leaving his corrections post, he spent time with various parole agents in rural and urban Wisconsin, to find out what works to turn around the lives of former prison inmates. His conclusions are published by the University of Wisconsin in an excellent set of monographs. The following observations about the offenders themselves is excerpted from an article in Federal Probation.

In the aftermath of a recent minor disturbance at a Wisconsin prison, a reporter called to ask for an instant analysis. The questions asserted the reporter’s own analysis: that the cause of the disturbance was that offenders today are tougher and more dangerous than ever before.

For a moment, I started to give what I now consider my "brainwashed" answer: the sound bite that includes the code words "youth gangs, drugs, crack, nothing to lose, overcrowded with violent and aggressive criminals."

This is the conventional wisdom in corrections today; a wisdom used too often to explain events such as prison disturbances and to justify the prison growth Wisconsin and the nation have experienced at unprecedented rates.

I have spent many months with probation and parole agents and social workers going about their daily jobs. Whether in the streets of Milwaukee’s inner city, the hills of rural Wisconsin, or the Fox Lake Prison, about three-quarters of the offenders were unsophisticated. Their life situations were detrimental. Their crimes were rarely dangerous and usually situational. Most were life’s victims, not its predators.

I met Rosetta, 43, an overweight, sickly woman with a severe learning disability who was on probation for possession of cocaine. She lived in Milwaukee with her daughter and son-in-law, their three grandchildren, her son, and a niece who has a child by her son.

A sign on her front door read "Drug Dealers don’t live here no more. Don’t Come Knockin’." She said her daughter had stolen all the food in the house to sell for cocaine and then had left for several days. Her son-in-law, high on crack, had taken all the blankets from the children to sell for cocaine.

When I first met her, Rosetta said she was determined to care for her grandchildren. She relapsed into drinking soon after these events. Her determination to stay eroded. She pleaded with her parole agent to find another place for her because she said she would "go down" if she stayed in that house.

I met Gary, 35, who was on probation for arson. He had been confined to a wheelchair for seven years because he suffers from MS, a deteriorating condition. He is married and has an 8-year-old daughter.

Gary had burned down the house of an acquaintance while his wife was in an upstairs bedroom with the man. His wife, 35, appears immature and flirts with men in his presence. He is supported in part by SSI, his mother, and his wife who works nights in a nursing home.

I also met Michael, an obviously shy, immature young man. He had great difficulty expressing himself. He has no self-confidence. His first prison term was for burglary. His second conviction was for fondling an 11-year-old girl whom he had lured into his room.

Social security provided his support. He indicated that he lived in virtual isolation, rarely leaving his room. He was confused about his sexuality. He said he had no friends, was lonely, and was more afraid of living in the community than in prison.

These were only three of the hundreds of offenders I met, but they characterize 75 percent of the offender population. They live isolated and lonely lives with few, if any, dependable friends or family. They believe they have few choices or opportunities. They tend to have little education. Some have mental or learning deficiencies. Many of the offenders are in poor health with no access to health care. Drug and alcohol abuse are a problem for virtually all of these offenders. Many offenders have repeatedly been the victims of crime. Their own crimes were usually unsophisticated and impulsive and brought small monetary reward, if any.

I make no pretense that my studies are scientific or give an accurate account of the variety of offenders that are in the nation’s many correctional systems. Some offenders are extremely dangerous, maybe more so than ever. They have been imprisoned for committing violent offenses involving weapons. Most of them have committed multiple offenses. They are not impulsive but appear to have decided to commit crimes.

These are the offenders that receive media attention. This attention exaggerates the character of the offender population and the danger it poses.

We make a serious mistake by basing correctional policy on an inaccurate assessment of the offender population, or by allowing politics, based on this misperception, to drive correctional policy. For one thing, it is monetarily expensive. For another, it is enormously destructive in human terms to treat the mass of offenders as if they are all highly dangerous and sophisticated.

By allowing the sensational and the unusual to dictate policy, in a sense, we are victimized again by these crimes. We need to look honestly at the offenders and construct careful policy calibrated to reality.

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