Convict criminology critically assesses the prevailing practices that exist in corrections and provides insight into the issues associated with incarceration and the issues that continue to manifest in post release challenges that impede successful reentry into communities. Convict criminology also seeks to promote policy reforms that will produce more humane consideration of convicts and ex-convicts.
Convict criminology is considered an issue-based approach that challenges established assumptions, conventional findings, and traditional theories that characterize prisons and prisoners. It represents the scholarly works of convicts and ex-convicts as well as nonconvict contributors and supporters. It recognizes that reentry preparation must commence with incarceration to increase the potential for successful postrelease outcomes. Convict criminology is an approach that fully recognizes a range of debilitating challenges capable of impacting convicts, and it highlights counterproductive practices that can impede successful reintegration into communities by ex-convicts. The ex-convict criminologists have combined the introspection gained from past experiences with their own scholarly insights and contemporary dynamics impacting the discipline. The result has been the introduction of thought-provoking perspectives on a host of issues given consideration in the studies of corrections, criminal justice, and criminology and in the development of new paradigms.
To give proper perspective to the ethical nature of the issues advanced by convict criminology the criminal justice system must be understood in its ethical dimension. The criminal justice system is the action mechanism for enforcing moral precepts and rules of conduct in the form of laws related to acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Laws are essentially the formal rules of right conduct promulgated by members of a community or society for the mutual and collective benefit of the members and administered by authorized agents (e.g., criminal justice practitioners) of the community or society. Through representatives certain behaviors are codified by a community or society and become enacted criminal law violations with associated sanctions. Communities and society as a whole benefit from the laws and sanctions when properly enforced and applied. Moreover, the socially acceptable sanctions and penalties are applied to law violators through the public criminal justice system. Certain sanctions result in periods of incarceration for convicted criminal law violators.
The confinement experience and structural impediments to community reintegration upon release, along with individual factors, can contribute to repeat offenses and recidivism. Unsuccessful community reentry is particularly feasible when ex-convicts return to environments characterized by substance abuse, poverty, high crime rates, and high unemployment without adequate job skills, employment opportunities, shelter, or adequate support networks. For hundreds of thousands of offenders released annually, many current laws and practices extend sanctions beyond criminal penalties and therefore give rise to questions of ethics, justice, and fairness. For example, in some states and at the federal level certain restrictions have been placed on the eligibility of ex-convicts for food stamps, public assistance, public housing, and drivers’ licenses, in addition to employment and voting constraints. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 prohibits persons with certain criminal convictions from being foster or adoptive parents, and the Higher Education Act of 1998 excludes students convicted of drug-related offenses from eligibility for loans, grants, or work assistance. Transitions to the community following periods of incarceration can be complicated undertakings for most offenders, their families and associates, and the affected communities. Yet laws and practices continue that further complicate and impede reentry efforts by denying certain opportunities to ex-convicts.
From the ethical and political perspectives, the most common motivations for formal punishment are retributivism and utilitarianism. Retributivism advances the view that a person must be punished because he or she deserves it and must not be punished unless they deserve it. Since the offenders are considered deserving of the criminal penalties imposed incident to convictions, add-on sanctions such as the previously articulated practices and legal prohibitions seem to violate the principle of not being punished unless deserved. Although some restrictions and revocations are offense specific, others are considered justly deserved based purely on the ex-convict status regardless of the crime, criminal law penalty, or sentence imposed. Ethics seems to dictate the removal of structural impediments to reentry for persons that have been subjects of criminal sanctions, particularly in light of the subjects being deemed releasable by authorized and responsible societal agents employed in criminal justice. Justice is in part a matter of moral correctness and therefore it is justifiable to question the continuation of intended and unintended sanctions that deny access to certain rebuilding opportunities. The add-on sanctions exceed the socially applied criminal penalties by which it is implicit that the societal debt is paid when confinement ends or when the sentence ends.
The postrelease sanctions form barriers to self-sufficiency, contribute to recidivism, and promote political and financial disenfranchisement. Therefore postrelease laws and practices that restrict ex-convicts appear to be in direct conflict with utilitarian principles that justify punishment only when that punishment has some utility. Utility as applied here could refer to the prevention of other crimes or a reduction in repeat offenders to the reduction of financial burdens associated with corrections and police functions, or to any public benefit to be gained which outweighs the costs to the offender.
The morality of the motives for post release sanctions and the ends achieved invite questions of ethical propriety and moral correctness in terms of justice. From a policy perspective, ultimately reducing victimizations, improving outcomes for offenders returning to their communities, and favorably impacting recidivism by strengthening prisoner reentry would benefit the public as a whole as well as the ex-convict. In other words, favorably addressing the issues raised by convict criminology would conceivably achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.
One of the most dominant political and public policy validations of the legitimacy of the issues presented by convict criminology occurred approximately a decade after the 1997 birth of the convict criminology movement. The Second Chance Act of 2007: Community Safety Through Recidivism Prevention was signed into law in April 2008. The findings articulated in Section Three of the act provided detailed insight into the national reentry and recidivism issues that precipitated the act. The noted findings and underlying reasons for the act aligned with the critical issues requiring reform as outlined in convict criminology. The act was designed to improve outcomes for people returning to communities after incarceration, and the legislation received the support of law enforcement, state and local governments, faith-based organizations, and justice reform groups. This pioneering U.S. legislation authorized federal grants to government agencies and nonprofit organizations to provide services and strategic support initiatives designed to reduce recidivism by improving outcomes for people returning to communities from prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities. It also seeks to promote public safety by reducing the potential for repeat offenders and recidivism rates.
The Second Chance Act of 2007 endeavors to reduce many of the so-called impediments to reentry that are considered to be among the catalysts contributing to recidivism. Recidivism is measured by criminal violations or violations of conditions of parole or probation that result in the rear rest, reconviction, or return to prison with or without a new sentence during a specified period following the prisoner’s release. Recidivism can result in new victims, higher tax expenditures associated with law enforcement, prosecutorial roles, judicial processes, and reincarceration, as well as unsupported families, public assistance, and other social ramifications. With the preceding in mind, the act advocates reentry preparation from the time of confinement through actual reentry for the purpose of reducing the potential for recidivism.
The act promotes and urges an evidence-based approach to crime reduction and public safety improvements by providing support for reentry programs, policies, and practices. The act underlies initiatives aimed at employment assistance, job skills training, substance abuse treatment, housing assistance, family-based programming, group mentoring, individual mentoring, and support of crime victims—the very issues advanced in convict criminology. Federal funding has also been made available to underwrite the research and evaluation of an array of issues related to offender reentry.
Recognizing that former offenders may encounter transitioning difficulties associated with the possibilities of substance abuse, limited education, inadequate job skills, limited housing alternatives, or mental health issues, the Second Chance Act of 2007 seeks to:
- Break the cyclical nature of criminal recidivism
- Build and rebuild relationships between offenders and families during the periods of incarceration and incident to transitioning and reentry
- Encourage evidence-based programs that enhance public safety and reduce recidivism inclusive of substance abuse treatment, alternatives to incarceration, and comprehensive reentry services
- Provide essential services to offenders during incarceration and following release into the community
- Assist offender reentry by providing sufficient transitional services
- Provide offenders in prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities with educational, literacy, vocational, and job placement services.
The range of funded initiatives has included job skills training, substance abuse treatment, early release programs for the nonviolent elderly, support of sentencing alternatives for certain nonviolent drug offenders, mentoring programs for adults and juveniles, and support services for dependent children of convicts.
- Convict Criminology. http://www.convictcriminology.org (Accessed August 2013).
- Richards, Stephen C., Donald Faggian, Jed Roffers, Richard Hendricksen, and Jerrick Krueger. “Convict Criminology: Voices From Prison.” Project Muse, v.2/1 (Autumn 2008). http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/race_ethnicity/v002/2.1.richards.html (Accessed September 2013).
- Ross, J. I. and S. C. Richards. Convict Criminology. Belmont: CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2003.
- “When Harmony Fails.” Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, v.21/1–2 (2013).
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