I started watching the Frontline PBS television special “Prison State.” They presented statistics that show prisons in the United States are over-populated. A question was posed by a prison administrator that almost knocked me over. When it comes to thinning out over-crowded prisons he pointed out that we need to ask ourselves: “Who are we mad at versus who is dangerous?”
My initial reaction was, “problem solved,” let’s just focus on getting smaller sentences and/or more rehabilitation programs for the ones we are “mad at” (non-violent offenders). That will decrease the prison population. But then I thought about the fine line between criminals who were “dangerous” and those who we were “mad at.” Do I get mad at drug dealers for giving teens drugs? Absolutely, but are they “dangerous?” Do I get mad at people who commit welfare fraud? Absolutely, but are they “dangerous?” Do I get mad at people who drive while intoxicated, absolutely, but are they inherently dangerous? I always thought the question about prison and justice reform was incarceration versus rehabilitation. The question about level of danger versus anger asks us who we rehabilitate versus who we incarcerate.
They featured several case examples to answer this question. I think Social Work’s contribution to better determining this question is looking at Risk versus Protective factors. What risk factors contribute to people offending/re-offending versus what prevents persons going to jail. Frontline gives evidence that we don’t focus enough on protective factors. What can we do to minimize risky and poor choices that lead persons to offending/re-offending. Not to excuse their behavior, but are we doing enough to help the people we are “mad at?” Frontline argues that we are not. I would like to think all social workers would agree.
This begs the question what should we do with “dangerous” people? I am not a forensic social worker and have not sat in on parole board meetings. Are there conversations about those who have DWI’s, committed white collar crimes, or dealt drugs to assess and treat their “danger?” Let’s ask why we think people are dangerous and what we are doing to reduce danger. Do we attempt to minimize risk and increase protective factors prior to release? We need more preventive programs to increase protective factors in the community. I believe whether we are “mad at” them or think they are “dangerous,” this is social work’s answer to over-crowded prisons. What is yours?