In the 1970s and '80s, as crime rates rose as fast as new prison walls, Americans lost faith in a long-held belief that most people sent to jail could be rehabilitated and then lead a crime-free life. Such a belief has a history traced back to 18th-century Quakers.
Even our word choices today reflect a shift away from a faith in any innate and redeemable goodness of our fellow human beings.
Before the 1960s, we often referred to wrongdoers as convicts, a word derived from the verdict for a one-time mistake. Now we commonly call them criminals, as if they practice an inbred profession for life. We don't say "ex-criminal" the way we used to say "ex-con." And we refer to "correctional institutions" as just "prisons."
Short-term public safety has become paramount to redeeming wayward citizens. Gone are many rehabilitation programs. Instead, we have get-tough-on-crime measures such as mandatory sentencing, three-strikes-you're-out laws, and sex-offender registries.
The emphasis is on retribution, a long time-out from society, and a life of shame. As a result, the state prison population has grown fourfold in two decades.
Well, guess what? Attorney General Janet Reno suggests that that approach isn't working, despite lower crime rates that really reflect a shift in demographics and a robust economy. The rates of recidivism for former inmates has remained stubbornly high.
"Unless we bring [inmates] back to our communities with a chance of success, the criminal justice system is going to fail again," she told the American Bar Association last week. "It makes no sense to send somebody to prison for an armed robbery and have them come out in four years ... without the problem being addressed."
As one solution, she proposes a new set of courts at the state level dedicated solely to guiding parolees and probationers back into society and back into good behavior. Judges would be on the front line of rehabilitation, using a firm hand for the "reentry" of an ex-convict.
"There is something magic about a judge," she said. "That black robe can make a difference."
The present system of justice relies on probation and parole officers to work with "clients" in avoiding drugs, keeping curfews, training for and keeping jobs, etc. But that's not been enough to cure repeat offenders - who make up the bulk of inmates.
Some criminal experts such as James Q. Wilson think Ms. Reno is naive to suggest many repeat offenders can be rehabilitated. Indeed, a career of crime does sadly seem to suit too many people.
But America was built on an ideal that assumes the best of people. Shall we throw that away and stick to the lock-up-the-bum method? Maybe we just haven't found the right way to correct the apparently incorrigible.
Ms. Reno's idea needs a chance. The Justice Department will soon sound out state and local courts for their advice and support. Let's hope the idea of rehabilitation can be rehabilitated.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society