If the purpose of the U.S. criminal justice system is to rehabilitate offenders, why are recidivism rates so high? In this episode, Dr. Gary Deel talks to Criminal Justice professor Dr. Michael Pittaro about what’s not working in the corrections system and what needs to change to help offenders reintegrate successfully into society. Learn about criminal justice reform efforts, the social and political issues that prevent systematic changes, discussion about capital punishment, and what other countries are doing to improve their correctional system.
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Dr. Gary Deel: Welcome to the podcast, Intellectible. I’m your host, Dr. Gary Deel. Today, we’re talking about the criminal justice system and different philosophies for crime and punishment. My guest today is Dr. Mike Pittaro. Before pursuing a career in higher education, Mike worked in corrections administration. He has served as the executive director of a two-county-wide outpatient drug and alcohol facility and is executive director of a county drug and alcohol prevention agency.
He’s a regular contributor to the Edge, Psychology Today, Corrections One and Police One. He’s also the author/editor of “Crimes of the Internet,” “Pursuing and Navigating a Career in Criminal Justice,” and “Global Perspectives on Reforming the Criminal Justice System.” Mike, welcome to Intellectible and thank you for being our guest today.
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Thank you, Gary. I appreciate the invitation to join.
Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. It’s a pleasure to have you here. What we’re here to talk about today, philosophies on crime and punishment is a subject that really interests me and that I’ve written a little bit about as a lay person in the field, but someone who follows the state of affairs and has some partially formed opinions on the subject. But I love to talk to experts such as yourself to get a sense of things.
I guess to open us up and to give our readers and listeners a sense of things, could you explain a little bit about different philosophies as it pertains to how we deal with people who commit wrongs in our society? We could call them crimes or misdemeanors, or misdeeds, sins or whatever word you want to use around that. But we have a system that deals with that, but there are different ways of looking at what the purpose of that system is. And by that, I mean, of course the difference between retribution versus rehabilitation. Is our role to punish? Is that what we’re after or is our role to try to fix people, or a little bit of both? Maybe you can give us an overview.
Dr. Michael Pittaro: My personal perspective on it is that it has to be a combination of the two. You have to have some retribution, which is the punishment aspect of it, along with some rehabilitation, which is more of the treatment component. One without the other, in my opinion, and my experience in education is you’re not going to get too far.
So while these individuals are incarcerated, you have to do something with them and preparing them for re-entry. That’s a whole other issue. That’s a little bit more complicated. But if you look at the history of the criminal justice system, particularly how we punish individuals, it has kind of swung back and forth depending on the decades between punishment and rehabilitation.
So for example, if you look at the 1960s and ’70s, we were focused more on rehabilitation. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of individual rights, more so than police rights. But then in the ’80s and ’90s, we got tough on crime. That was the era of mass incarceration. So it kind of swings and forth every 20, 30 years, but one without the other, in my opinion, it’s a futile effort. It’s not going to go anywhere. So you have to have both of those to be truly successful.
Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. And I’m glad you brought up sort of the political differences of opinion around the subject. You had talked about some different eras in American political history concerning different changes in policy. Could you perhaps give us an example of some things that may have been put into effect either by executive order or passed by Congress or some change in the ethos of the way the criminal justice system operated under, say, an administration like Reagan versus an administration that would have been more liberal or democratic in the way that we approach it?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Oh, absolutely. You can’t necessarily break it down into Democrat or Republican necessarily. For example, Bill Clinton, a Democrat introduced a lot of legislation on the federal level to increase the number of police officers in the United States, followed by increasing the length of time served in prison for drug offenders, sex offenders, and so forth. And then that carried on to subsequent administrations. So it seems like it’s more driven by society, not necessarily politically.
How we feel as a society in ’80s, we saw a huge increase in the number of drug wars, the number of murders that took place in the United States. And then there was a heavy focus on sex offenders after Megan Kanka was killed leading to Megan’s Law and many other additional pieces of legislation.
And then we also focus heavily on juvenile offenders. I was still in the correction system when that occurred, where we were starting to sentence juveniles as adult offenders. And not just sentenc them to adult prison, but to some significant time in prison. That has since been pulled back. I believe it was 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that that was unconstitutional that you can’t have a juvenile who’s, say, 15 years old serving the life term without the possibility of parole. You’ll have to give them that option.
There’s multiple factors at play there that determine how we view criminal offending and how we should try to reduce recidivism. And I think for the most part, if I were to judge 2021, I still would say we’re more in the rehabilitation side of it. We’re looking to focus heavily on re-entry and reintegration trying to get these individuals back on their feet, trying to get them employed, trying to basically build up as many protective factors as possible and then try to reduce the risk factors.
Again, though, it’s easier said than done. I’ll give you a perfect example. Over 90% of offenders that leave prison are going to return to the same exact neighborhoods where their problems originated. So the idea for someone like you and I to change people, places, and things for example, to try to start over, a clean slate. Over 90% that’s not possible. So you’re right back into the midst of all that chaos in the neighborhoods with the drugs and with the violence and so forth. So we see high failure rates and a lot of it has to do to the communities where these individuals originated from and then also where they return to.
Dr. Gary Deel: I think those are a lot of interesting points and we’re talking of course about, I think the primary goal of the criminal justice system would be to bring recidivism to zero, ideally, and perhaps that’s to a certain extent impossible, but for the sake of our listeners, when we’re talking about recidivism, we’re of course talking about the proportion of those who are released from the criminal justice system at some point who will then re-offend and be back in at some point later in their lives.
We’d like that to never happen, but can you give us a sense today of what the recidivism rates look like in the US or does it vary a lot by region or how we measure that?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Oh, it varies a lot by region. However, if you were to look at the national average, it would be about 68%, 69% within three years will return to prison. So it’s not necessarily the most glamorous statistics, but, again, there’s a lot of things at play there that kind of contribute to why someone would fail.
Of course, the onus is on them to basically take the tools that they received while they were incarcerated and put them to work when they’re back on the streets. But again, it’s a little bit more difficult because for one, most employers are unwilling or very hesitant to hire somebody who has a criminal record because that leads to liability if something were to happen down the road.
Of course, having a job is one of the protector factors. Those without the job tend to then go back to their old ways. So it’s kind of multifaceted in the sense where you need society to kind of step up. This is not just a criminal justice problem. Really, it’s always been a societal problem. It’s not just us to try to fix this issue. It really is like the old African proverb, it takes an entire village to raise a child. Well, in this situation, we’re talking about children and adults, but it still takes that entire village approach in order for this to truly work.
We’re making some progress in the sense that some municipalities on the local level have utilized what’s referred to as Ban the Box. In other words, the checkbox, as far as have you ever been convicted of a crime is no longer on the job application. That gives them a fair chance to at least work their way to an interview and hopefully explain themselves and maybe be able to articulate what happened. And hopefully you’ll have an empathetic employer willing to give them a shot.
But again, a lot of its liability. If you try to hire someone, let’s say like me, who just happens to have, let’s say an armed robbery conviction and you want to hire me for retail, it’s questionable. You want to help this guy out, but you also a little cautious that this could backfire and really end up hurting the business.
Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. And that’s interesting because people don’t realize of course, but your criminal convictions or criminal record history is not a protected class under employment law that would preclude an employer from refusing to hire you or discriminating against you. In other words, employers at the federal level are entirely free to make decisions based on your criminal record, whether or not it’s even relevant to the job or any concerns they would have about your reliability or credibility, trustworthiness as an employee.
And obviously, as you noted the Ban the Box initiatives at the state level can sort of restrict that or what can be done procedurally to eliminate people who have criminal records from job applications or consideration, as you said, that that is a major factor in keeping people out of criminal behavior that would lead to high recidivism.
But you mentioned 68, 69%, and that really, I would imagine, strikes, and I know that strikes me impactfully. I would think a lot of listeners who may have not been familiar with this topic previously are surprised to hear that roughly two out of three, more than two out of three individuals who are released from the criminal justice system in the United States, on average, will be back in within three years.
To me that says that something isn’t working, but then again, there’s the devil’s advocate argument that says maybe that’s the best you can do with certain people and we’re setting the standard. So I’m curious to know if you have any information with respect to how does our criminal justice system and its rate of recidivism compare to other criminal justice systems around the world and the way that different societies might attempt to deal with the problem. Is anybody doing better than we are and how so?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: You can look at some of the other countries and they are doing well, but there’s other variables at play there. For example, oftentimes I’ll have somebody who doesn’t have any real experience in the criminal justice system will site like the Norway studies where it shows that prisoners are coming, they’re dressed in their own clothes and they have a high success rate of not re-offending, but we’re not Norway. So it’s not the same. It’s apples and oranges. It just doesn’t work that way.
The US society has a history of violence. We have a history of racism. There’s a lot of things deeply embedded in our culture that contribute to this. We have high rates of drug addiction. We have high rates of mentally ill offenders. For example, the deinstitutionalization movement in the 1960s led to the closure of a lot of psychiatric facilities.
Those individuals ended up on the streets and the majority were actually absorbed into the criminal justice system. Not necessarily for violent offenses, but for offenses that still warranted that they’d be incarcerated for lengthy periods of time, mostly drug offenses. So it’s difficult because we haven’t really gotten a handle on this so-called war on drugs. But then you add in mental illness on top of that. And then you add an employer’s reluctance to hire someone. It creates this very toxic environment that they come home to.
So even though they may excel in prison and do well and honestly want to do well, the true test is once you step foot outside of the prison and now you’re back into the community, can you actually deal with those disappointments and the rejection and frustration without resorting to going back to drugs, going back to crime, to try to support yourself.
I’ll give you a perfect example. In my experience, a large percentage of those who get released, they end up in retail jobs, they end up in fast food joints, things of that nature that as you know, don’t pay well. So you’re a 40-year-old man. You’re coming out of prison. You have five kids. You have – child support. You have court costs and fines. You have restitution, blah, blah, blah. The list goes on and on and we didn’t even get to rent yet. It’s not feasible for someone to come out, work at McDonald’s and actually survive on that income.
We know that because discussions have focused on that with just your general citizens. But now somebody who has a record and they have a lot of financial obligations when they come out of prison, it makes it extremely tough.
Dr. Gary Deel: Now, you mentioned the Norway studies, and I thought that was interesting. I’m familiar with some of those examples. And for those who are not familiar, I would refer you to the internet. There’s a lot of articles that have been written on them. There’s actually documentaries that have been done on these.
I’m curious to know your thoughts because I would concede the point that we are not currently Norway, but I don’t know that I would subscribe to the argument that the level of cultural difference is irreconcilably different to the extent that we couldn’t aspire to something that is a more sophisticated version of our criminal justice system. Because my understanding, and correct me if I’m wrong is that the recidivism rates in those examples are dramatically lower. Something like one in five, which still isn’t great, but better than two out of three, for sure.
And when we talk about things like racism, I mean, Norway is where Anders Breivik shot 80 some people on an island, in the name of white nationalism. So I think racism is a pretty ubiquitous thing around the world. But I guess what I’m asking, I’m not intending to be confrontational or contrarian, but just to ask you from the perspective of when we look at those models, is it the case that the US is not Norway and never will or could be so we should not attempt to adopt a model that could lead to improvement because it would never work here? Or is it the case that we are so different currently, that it would take us a lot of work to get to a model that is similar enough to see the benefits of what they’re doing and the improvement in recidivism that apparently is being seen there?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: I would say it’s probably the latter. It’s going to take us awhile to get to that point. One of my frustrations, this is now 30 years for me as either a practitioner or educator. And one of my frustrations is that we have this tendency to repeatedly do the same thing over and over again. For example, this is a very simplistic example, but I’m sure you remember “Scared Straight” where we bring kids into the prisons. The whole idea was the scare them of what their life would be if they continued on this path.
Great show, entertaining. We loved it. The problem was that it was very short term. It didn’t necessarily scare them long-term, so it didn’t have good results. But what do we do? We introduce then “Beyond Scared Straight” years later, which is essentially the same program, expecting different results. So we have this tendency to kind of focus on things that we’ve done in the past that haven’t worked in the past. We need new approaches.
And that was part of the reason that I wanted to focus on my book with reforming the criminal justice system. I wanted others to contribute to this as well and try to find out what’s working somewhere else that we need to look at. I’ve always been a progressive, visionary type of thinker, but I’ve noticed in my field, in my profession, change is very difficult for the criminal justice system. You’re dealing with a lot of “this is the way we’ve always done it” type of mentalities and that doesn’t work for me because that doesn’t work.
We have to have different types of policies, procedures, and programs that are designed to help these individuals. For example, one is cognitive behavioral therapy. Awesome program. It’s been shown to be very effective with even the most difficult of your criminal offenders, your sex offenders, your domestic violence offenders, a lot of those angry, angry men, and it’s been shown to be effective.
It’s essentially the shortened-down version is that it’s changing your thinking patterns and the way you approach frustration and the way you react to certain situations. But at the end of the day, and this is what I always tell my students, it really comes down to the individual offender wanting, not just wanting, but actually taking the necessary steps to changing their ways. We can provide the best services and so forth, but it really takes them to really implement what they’ve learned while they were incarcerated. And plus the services that are available, say, on probation or parole as well.
Dr. Gary Deel: I definitely agree that there needs to be a willingness to change, but I like the example you provided with respect to a rehabilitative aim through psychological therapy to help people change their thinking. I think my takeaway from studying the examples in Scandinavia, for example, we talked about earlier is that the focus seems to be on rehabilitation. And you had described how, yes, in some of the instances of institutions, incarceration institutions, people wear their own clothes, they live in prisons that closer resemble college dormitories here in the US. There’s a maintenance of dignity there that what I observe in the US seems to be largely absent in many of these environments that people are treated like caged animals.
Then when we release them into society, we expect them to behave like dignified people and we’re shocked to find that they don’t. We still have practices in place that we know are tragically, psychologically harmful, like solitary confinement, 23 hours a day lockdown. These kinds of things can breed animals from even the most sophisticated of human beings.
And to me, it’s rather obvious that we see the results of shocking recidivism rates. We shouldn’t necessarily be surprised by those when there seems to be so little effort geared toward rehabilitation, rather it’s this is your punishment. This is society’s reconciliation for your wrongs and it needs to be as painful and grotesque as possible in the hope that you will never want to go back. But, for some people, as you pointed out previously, the outside world could be worse.
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Absolutely. When you look at some of these individuals, especially those with some type of underlying mental health condition, incarceration is the worst thing that could possibly happen because you’re definitely going to come out, worse off than before you went in. As you mentioned, there’s a lot of controversy with the use of solitary confinement and a lot of states and local jurisdictions have gotten away from that use because, or especially for long extended periods of time.
One of the issues as you were talking that I was thinking about is that we need to face some of the reality. So I’ll give you an example of sex offenders. Sex offenders have a higher rate of recidivism than most other criminal offender types. So the whole idea of, well, we’ll threaten them with longer prison times if they commit another offense, well, you got to get into the psychology behind this. That individual understands that and they know that, but that’s not what it’s going to take to necessarily prevent them from trying to find another victim, and that’s what we’re seeing.
We need more to this. We have to realize that this type of deviance is deeply embedded within them and we have to work at kind of getting that to the surface and then dealing with it. One of the issues that I would say needs attention is that therapy from a correctional perspective is very minimal. A lot of it is in group settings. And once again, you got to look at the dynamics here. You got 15 guys. They’re all in for different variety of offenses there. How many guys are going to break down and say, “Well, my dad abused me when I was a child, and this is kind of contributing to it.”
That may be true, but most of these individuals don’t say a word in these settings. So you’re not really getting that sound therapeutic approach that you would like to see. And as far as individual counseling, which is very effective, that’s very minimal.
So we need to do more not just while they’re incarcerated, but also we need better services once they enter the communities. But the problem is also the communities that the large majority of individuals when they’re released from prison are entering are the ones that lack these resources. So these are the low-income communities that lack the resources someone like, “Oh, I could access if I just left prison.”
Dr. Gary Deel: You talked about sex offenders, and of course that’s a very broad class of criminal offenders that encompasses a lot of things, but it made me think about the way that part of this process for criminal justice reform involves societal introspection into what we consider to be harmful behavior. I don’t think anyone would disagree with the notion that someone who sexually assaults someone else is a criminal should repent. A rapist clearly, violent acts, murderers.
But it made me think about the subject of prostitution and the push currently to decriminalize in many jurisdictions. Our Vice President, Kamala Harris has been outspoken about being in favor of decriminalization. It is legal in certain parts of the country, specifically in Nevada. We’ve had major pushes in the last 10, 20 years for decriminalization of drug charges. And I know that’s been a big part of your background.
So we’re rethinking what is, and is not societally offensive behavior. What once was enough to get you locked up for smoking marijuana is obviously legal in roughly half of the states today for not just medicinal and prescriptive use, but recreationally.
We’re looking at types of activities in determining whether they are truly reprehensible to the extent that they need to be prosecuted, or choices of the individual that if they’re without a victim or can be justified under certain circumstances may not be culpable in the sense that they are prosecutable.
So I think that’s all to the good, but it brings me to a larger point, which I’m curious to know your thoughts on, and that is the idea of capital punishment for the most severe crimes. Because if we’re interested in rehabilitating people, and this is something I’ve written about previously, the idea is that you go into this system and come out a reformed individual that is capable of living and coexisting with your community members in a civilized society.
But the idea of capital punishment, and I think why it is so controversial, even if people don’t realize that this is the reason, is that capital punishment is sort of waving the white flag of rehabilitation and saying, “Okay, there are some people on this planet who will commit some acts that are so irredeemable that we are going to write them off as a society and say that rehabilitation is not an option or a goal for us at any point.” Because the moment that you execute an individual and end their life, you have decided that they are not capable of redemption or rehabilitation.
So I’m curious to know if you think that on that sort of final point of most severe punishment that some states still uphold, does that run contrary to the philosophies of our system or what we espouse to be the philosophies insofar as we’re even trying to blend retribution with rehabilitation because it seems to me that for those capital crimes, you can only have one of those things. You can’t purport to be trying to rehabilitate somebody that you’re simultaneously executing.
Dr. Michael Pittaro: I agree with you. I think that a lot of it has to do once again with the culture of our society. I live in Pennsylvania. Our governor has a moratorium against the carrying out of executions. I believe the last time that we executed someone in Pennsylvania was maybe late ’90s, ’96, ’97, if I recall correctly. So I think that in the northeast, we’re starting to see a movement towards possibly the abolishment of capital punishment. As a deterrent, it’s not a deterrent. So it has not deterred individuals. If you look at murder, for example, which is what leads to capital punishment, murder is more of an emotional response. It’s revenge, it’s anger, it’s disappointment. You’re not thinking I may get caught and this could lead to me being executed by the state.
So I think we have to move away from it. If we really want to try to move as a society and try to reform the criminal justice system, we have to really move forward. Abolish capital punishment. Easier said than done though because many states, particularly those in the south are holding onto that. That’s kind of like culturally ingrained, that’s how you deal with individuals.
But in reality, it hasn’t shown to be effective in any way whatsoever. It’s not deterred the latest gangbanger from committing a crime because his friend ended up on death row. It has no effect. So I think that we are moving in that direction, but I can’t speak as a nation, but I can say from my perspective as Pennsylvania, that we are definitely moving in that direction. People just don’t feel that we should have it. And as a civilized society, we should be moving beyond that.
Dr. Gary Deel: I think the other piece of it that we haven’t mentioned but is worth mentioning is the possibility of a wrongful prosecution. I just watched a week or two ago, the movie, “The Life of David Gale” with Kevin Spacey from years and years ago, it’s on Netflix currently. It’s sort of a topic covering, I believe it’s loosely based on a true story, but the idea being that some people are sentenced to death by the criminal justice system wrongly. And only after we find out that they’re innocent, but of course you can’t fix that. That’s a bell that can’t be unrung.
But it’s interesting because of course this conversation about rehabilitation extends beyond capital punishment to life imprisonment without the possibility of any release. And that is what was so controversial about it. I mentioned Breivik earlier, the mass shooting that occurred in, I’m pretty sure it was Norway.
It was an island in Norway where something like 70 or 80 people were shot and many of them died, unfortunately. So you have this heinous crime from this individual that anyone could be forgiven for thinking is just an evil human being. But in Norway, the criminal justice system is such that life imprisonment is not an available remedy. It’s not an available sentence. Because, again, the theory is that if we’re here to rehabilitate people, the idea that I would lock you away and throw away the key forever, without the possibility of considering your release and peaceful coexistence in society runs contrary to rehabilitation.
So last I checked on this when I wrote several articles on it in the last few years, Breivik was sentenced to, I believe the sentence maximum is 21 years, and then it can be extended at the discretion of a judge in three year periods if after the initial sentence of 21 years, in his case, it’s determined that he’s not fit or safe to be returned to society. Many people look at that, and of course they compare it to the American criminal justice system and say, “Geez, this guy would’ve gotten the chair or chemical execution, or at least life imprisonment and never ever come out.”
So the idea that he would only do two decades and he wasn’t a particularly old person when he did it, so he’ll be maybe in his 40s or 50s when he’s released, assuming he only does his initial 21 years. It seems entirely unfair given the heinousness of his crime.
But I think the question that people fail to ask themselves is if Breivik is capable of rehabilitation. If he’s capable of repentance and rehabilitation to become someone who is apologetic for what he’s done, regretful, and law-abiding and peaceful, someone who can be constructive, who can hold a job, who can help in society, who can contribute to the economy, who can obey the law and be again, a peaceful community member.
Is there any reason other than spite, and bitterness, and revenge that we would want to keep him in a prison and throw away the key forever and let him rot there? And that becomes a difficult question, especially, of course, if you’re perhaps a friend or family member of a victim. It’s hard to put the emotional stigma of the situation aside. Anyone can understand that and empathize with it. But these are difficult questions for sure.
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Oh, absolutely. We used to have life in prison and that was roughly around the 20, 25 year mark where you would be eligible for parole. Then states moved to life without the possibility of parole. I think it was also a way of kind of appeasing the citizens that were kind of moving away from the possibility of sentencing to capital punishment, and sentencing someone to death. And the other option would be then life without parole, which seems to be the more friendlier of the two options.
Dr. Gary Deel: What’s interesting, and then humorous to me, I mean, in just a sort of tragic way is when you see the sentences for some of our most heinous crimes and criminals, and they say 50 years for each count and there’s 19 counts. So this guy has 972 years of prison time to serve. Obviously, you’re kind of just flabbergasted at the idea that that would even be on paper. The idea that someone would be serving 900 years in prison. We’re just sentencing that person to the rest of their life behind bars.
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Absolutely. A lot of that has to do with in case some of those are overturned. So it’s kind of like, I guess you could say the insurance policy or the backup in case one murder conviction would be overturned, you have others to fall back on. You’ve probably heard of the nurse killer, Charles Cullen, who was in my facility, he’s responsible for nearly 100 patients that were killed and was sentenced to multiple life terms in both states. So he’s over in New Jersey serving this time. So it’s not like he’s going to live one life and come back over here.
So it is kind of ridiculous. But the thought is if that were to be overturned in New Jersey and he would be returned to Pennsylvania and still never get out of prison. So it kind of reminds me of like an insurance policy to ensure that if the case is overturned and usually overturned on a technicality that you have a backup system. Because you often see someone sentenced to life without parole and then 40 years for kidnapping and then 40 years for rape, and they just keep tying on these, all running consecutive to one another. So the judge is basically ensuring that this person will never see daylight outside of the prison facility.
Dr. Gary Deel: Right. And I think on balance to be fair, there is an argument that a life imprisonment is a lesser of evils as compared with capital punishment, because as you pointed out, if for whatever reason the conviction was ever overturned, you’d still have to address the issue of the time you’ve taken away from that person behind bars wrongfully, but you can still allow them to live the rest of their life in peace. And this has happened before and governments have heavily compensated people for wrongful convictions and they’ve spent decades behind bars only to later find, “Oh, we were wrong.”
But if you kill that person and you execute them, you can never even partially attempt to rectify that situation. So I think there is a lesser of evils argument there, but again, the life imprisonment, the idea that someone would be locked away with no hope ever, no review, no parole ever is contrary to the idea that someone is capable of being fixed.
So even if we concede that this person committed the crime, and there’s no question that they did it. An example like Breivik, there’s no doubt. He admitted to it. He was caught on the scene with the weapon. I mean, there’s no controversy about who was responsible. But the question is, can people like that be rehabilitated to where they’re constructive members of society again? And if they could, should that be our goal or should our goal be, again, the retribution side of the philosophy, which is to punish for punishment’s sake until our sense of justice is satisfied. Does that trump the goal of rehabilitating people?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: We need to move towards the rehabilitation part of it really. It’s not getting us anywhere. It’s been proven to be ineffective. While you were talking, it made me think of something. Here’s a perfect example. So let’s say that your 20-year-old, I call him a kid, 20 year-old kid. He committed an armed robbery. He had drugs on you. You end up with a 40-year sentence. So now, you’re a 60-year-old. I’ve written on this topic because Pennsylvania has the second largest elderly prisoner population. And elderly prisoners, unlike your average prisoner, we always quote $30 to $35,000 a year for one individual.
When you start getting into elderly prisoners, you jump that number up to $65,000 to $75,000 per year for one elderly offender. But if you look at the statistics, elderly offenders have less than 1% recidivism rate. So particularly, if it’s kind of ridiculous where you have somebody who is confined to a wheelchair, confined to their bed or on their death bed through some type of hospice, why are they still incarcerated? This lacks logic.
You and I, you may, I’m not sure how old you are, but I’m 54. The things I may have done in my teen years, my 20s, my 30s, they all vary, but you mature over time. Now, I’m not the same person I was in my 20s, for sure.
So why are we keeping these individuals incarcerated? A lot of it would have to do with, I don’t want to say spite necessarily, but it’s ridiculous. So if you even take violence out of the equation and you would just have these individuals who have been sentenced for drug offenses, mostly drug offenses in the ’80s like these ridiculous amount of time, what’s the purpose? How is that helping society? What has it done for society?
Dr. Gary Deel: The question is you can never know for sure. Of course that’s the counter-argument is if we released someone who committed a heinous crime, even after 20 or 30, or 40 years. How would we know for sure that they would not recommit? And you can’t ever say for sure, but you can say with a certain degree of confidence based on that person’s experience and the reformation that they’ve shown, the rehabilitation that they’ve shown.
One of the things that we’ve not addressed on this talk, and I wish we had more time, but is the enormous cost that comes with the criminal justice system. So this is not a free sense of revenge that we can indulge whenever we so desire. Yes, we can lock people away as long as we like if that’s what we want our criminal justice system to be, but we pay an enormous cost through our taxes and our societal dues for the institutions and the people that run them to keep people locked away.
Even executions are surprisingly expensive compared to what people would think they would cost. And I’m not making light of the idea that the most important thing about an execution should be the cost, but everything about the criminal justice system has a cost. So we should really carefully consider how much of that we’re willing to endure in the interest of, again, a sense of revenge or spite that comes from the wrong that’s been committed. This has been really great and I’m glad we covered it. I’d like to have you back at some point in the future, because I think there’s a lot more to talk about on this subject. But before we wrap up, was there anything on the immediate topics we covered that you wanted to address that we didn’t get a chance to?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: No, just to state that there are tools in place that you could try to help minimize and therefore reduce the recidivism rates. You could use the polygraph. You can build the polygraph into their parole conditions. You can have psychologicals that are mandated. While not full-proof and 100% effective, but they are effective. I mean, we utilize them in Pennsylvania with sex offenders, just to kind of keep that in the back of their mind that we’re always measuring that level of deviancy to see, and kind of get an idea if there’s a threat there or a potential for a threat there.
So there are some tools that are available, but we’re not utilizing them enough. And far cheaper than being incarcerated. So if you mandate that someone has a polygraph every so often, it’s going to be far less expensive than incarcerating them. I’ve often argued that, like you mentioned about the amount of expense this is to punish someone in the United States, but we never justify, well, we need more probation and parole officers.
So they’re essentially saving that expense by not returning that individual to prison by getting them into the programs that they need. So I think it’s that we have to get rid of this whole mentality. This is my own perspective and just my own thoughts is that a lot of it is politically motivated. A lot of politicians don’t want to appear soft on crime. Hard on crime is always a win-win. I mean, that’s part of the drive there. So I think that’s a huge thing that we got to get over and realize that someone has to step up and say, “Well, okay, we can be hard on crime, but this isn’t working at all. It’s costing us so much money. It’s not producing the results.”
I think if the everyday citizen had a chance to look over how much it has actually cost us and I think it’s over 80 billion we spend a year on corrections in the United States and then show a 68% recidivism rate. I’m sure people would get a better picture of what’s going on and what we could possibly do to correct that.
Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. I think those are great points. There’s ways to reduce costs through oversight that doesn’t involve the incarceration system as you mentioned, the parole system, parole officer check-ins, and polygraph testing and ways to ensure that people that are released from the system are behaving with integrity. So I think that’s a sort of a halfway point that may help to appease some concerns about what if we let everybody go and it all turns to anarchy? So interesting questions and really an interesting discussion, but I want to thank you for sharing your expertise and perspectives on these topics today. And thanks for joining me for this episode of Intellectible.
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.
Dr. Gary Deel: My pleasure. Thank you to our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about these topics by visiting the various APU-sponsored blogs. Be well and stay safe, everyone.