In recent years, America's desire to "get tough" on crime has filled the nation's prisons. Incarcerating people who have committed crimes is intended to be a deterrent as well as a way, at least temporarily, to remove the problem from society.
But what happens at the end of an inmate's sentence? A recent column by David Broder offered a sobering statistic about our current prison population. "Twenty years ago," he wrote, "the total prison population of the country was 700,000. Next year alone, that many will be released from prison and, if past trends hold, nearly two-thirds will be rearrested."
It doesn't seem like we're making much headway. Most people convicted of a crime are imprisoned for a relatively short time. Unfortunately, in many cases, nothing seems to happen during that period that decreases the possibility they will commit crimes again once they get out. Either being in prison wasn't enough of a deterrent, or they just haven't learned the skills they need to live within the law.
It's a cycle that - if it isn't broken - will continue to increase both crime and the need for expanded prison space. There must be a better way.
Broder's column graciously notes the effort in Kansas prisons to reduce repeat offenders. The addition of vocational education and substance abuse programs and other measures have reduced the crime rate among Kansas parolees by 41 percent in the last five years.
On the local level, the Douglas County Jail also has a new staff member dedicated to helping inmates make the transition to life outside of jail. That means trying to make sure they have housing and maybe a job. In many cases, it also may mean connecting them with doctors or counselors that can help them continue treatment for substance abuse or mental health issues. Without that treatment, many will simply end up on the street and back in jail.
Inmates with mental illness are a special problem that demands special attention. Thousands of mentally ill Kansans currently are being housed in jails and prisons across the state, often for minor crimes, some of which may have been committed for the express purpose of landing them in a secure, warm jail cell. There is no room for them in one of the state's three remaining mental hospitals, where they might receive stabilizing treatment.
Helping inmates with mental illness or simply with the life skills they need to live a law-abiding life is a good investment for the state. Sending criminal offenders to prison is a short-term solution. The longer term goals of reducing crime and prison populations requires that punishment be paired with meaningful planning and preparation for a successful life on the outside.