WARREN — Today in the world of criminal justice, virtually everything is being questioned and we need to take a hard look at rehabilitation.

In Maine, overcrowding in the county jails and prison system has been the constant theme. Releasing an inmate who has a felony record and little or no education and social skills is a recipe for failure. Without the means to succeed outside prison, untrained and uneducated former prisoners will increase the recidivism rate.

According to the National Institute of Justice, recidivism rates are high. One study tracked 404,638 prisoners in 30 states after their release from prison in 2005. The researchers found that within three years of release, about two-thirds were rearrested. Within five years of release, about three-quarters of released prisoners had been rearrested.

The 2014 Maine Crime & Justice Databook reflects a lower rate for Maine; however, the methodology may be different and anecdotal evidence tells us our recidivism rate remains too high.

In other countries, such as Germany, the psychology is far more focused on reintegrating prisoners into society. The future of the American correctional system can change from its current prospects if we incorporate new thinking more conducive to a work and therapy mindset.

For example, if correctional officers can be viewed not as enforcers, but as resources for prisoners – and if prospective correctional staff can be trained to help the incarcerated understand that their job is to improve prisoners, not humiliate them – then the job of a corrections officer can become interesting work indeed.

In my 30 years in prison I have known some amazing corrections officers, and we could gain a lot by finding ways to expand and enhance their roles. Congress and the constitutional courts are looking for new ways to bring American correctional system into a much different light. If action can be taken to propel the correctional system further along the path of facilitating prisoners’ re-entry into society, this would be a start.

Converting correctional facilities into “showcase prisons” and getting away from oppressive and heavily guarded compounds would be consistent with the German philosophy and bring about a less troublesome correctional system.

We lock up nine times as many people per capita as Germany, but Germany is far safer, with a murder rate about one-fifth of ours. There can be no doubt that prisons are big business in the United States. No matter how many prisons are built, there is a judge and district attorney ready to fill the prison beds. Unless and until we change the American correctional philosophy, no matter how many prisons are built, they will always be filled to capacity.

The most powerful force governing the behavior of prisoners is hope. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to realize that even the sanest and most law-abiding person will be moved to irrational behavior if hope is removed from their existence.

Parole has been a neglected resource for too long in Maine. If the state were to upgrade, extend and explore the full potential that exists in parole or some type of positive re-entry program, it would improve the overall structure of corrections and enable inmates to function with the proper incentives needed to contribute to society.

This would also mean a reduction in the prison population. That would reduce or eliminate the need for the state to commit capital to the construction of prisons.

A prime example of our misdirected correctional systems is that Maine has several “good-time” laws in place for a small prison population. Over the years, law and order measures have been taken to reduce earnable good-time credits for sentence reductions, which in turn have left people in prison longer at great expense to the taxpayers.

The state’s 1983 good-time law, for example, requires that an inmate serve at least 57 percent of their imposed sentence. Under the good-time laws now in place, dating from 1995 and 2004, inmates now must serve at least 85 percent of their prison term.

Just as people come to prison because they fail to live by society’s rules, once people are ready to become an asset rather than a liability in the community and are corrected, they should be afforded the opportunity to demonstrate the change and to speak out about their desires to live a productive life in society.

Germany reminds us that someday, most in prison will be back among society and that they, in many respects, are society. If nothing else, the German model ought to make us reflect on our approach.

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