One of the most frustrating problems in criminal justice is how to reduce rates of recidivism (re-offending). Prisons could be places of rehabilitation, reform, treatment and education. But too often, they are merely holding cells. And when prisoners are released, the stigma of a criminal record often makes it difficult or impossible to find legal work. This feeds the recidivism cycle.
Dr. Stephen Richards and Jeffrey Ian Ross, authors of Convict Criminology, suggest that the criminal justice system is losing out by not paying attention to the one population most affected: individuals who are caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to prison. These people, who are inside the prison system, often for years, would be able to advise policy makers on what works and what doesn’t.
Unfortunately, politicians are not listening. A recent article in the Daily Beast suggests that many former offenders are pursuing education in criminology – either on their own or through the encouragement of others. The goal is to create advocates with first-hand experience of the problems plaguing the criminal justice system, who can also communicate effectively with those in power (politicians).
Most criminologists come from an academic background and thus have little or no practical experience with the criminal justice system. If more ex-offenders can get training in criminology, more people will be in the field who have analytical tools and practical experience to get at the root of the problem.
The one attitude that may stand in the way of such a reform is the need to be “tough on crime.” Many politicians care about criminal justice reform only as a means to get votes. And traditionally, the tough-on-crime platform has been an easier sell than the more nuanced platform of getting smart on crime. We must hope that over time, impassioned advocates will continue to educate the public, which will in turn push politicians to take reform efforts seriously.