Monday, January 01, 2007

The Stories of Corrections Sentencing Policy

I mentioned a couple of weeks back that I had been in reentry Training discussing "what works" and what doesn't in keeping current offenders from reoffending when they return to free society. One of the conspicuous messages of that training was that "reentry is public safety." Now, I happen to agree strongly with that, based on very good evidence, but, having sat through infinite debates over the last decade plus, I also knew that many in corrections sentencing policymaking would just roll their eyes at that statement. Those who see themselves as "heroes" battling "bad guys" tend to respond to "reentry" as rhetoric, as touchy-feely, as "hug a thug," as one of the presenters said. I doubt the training would have gone so harmoniously had they been participants.

The truth is, policymaking is driven by how the problem the policy is to resolve is defined. What causes it? "Well, then, stop doing that." Or start doing more of the opposite. And because those definitions often duel, policy recs often differ. So, to understand how we get the policies we do (even in the face of evidence strongly opposed, like child sex offender penalties or reentry), we need to understand how we get those dueling definitions.

Social problems, by definition (sorry), deal with humans and their strengths and flaws. And almost all definitions of social problems are based on our views of humans and their essential natures. Some people see humans as all basically cut from the same cloth, "there but for the grace of God," capable of self-improvement and growth. You know, from every little acorn grows a mighty oak. To get the mighty oak, though, you certainly need adequate sun, water, care, and plenty of manure (aka education). Others see humans less benevolently. Yes, some acorns grow into mighty oaks. But others grow into pretty weak ones, others into weeds, and some never make it out of the ground. Don't blame the sun, blame the acorn. And get a good WeedEater.

You can see how this plays out in all social policy--education, health, Social Security, etc. Especially in corrections and sentencing. If you're "but for the grace of God," you will see rehab and ensuring positive reentry as not only possible but vital. If you're "good guys" v. "bad guys," you haul out the RoundUp. This first group will likely see the problems extending through generations of acorns; the second ends the story with the rounding up. If the weeds somehow are too stupid and/or evil to get the message, just apply more more and stronger doses. You're always right and they're always wrong.

This is a tad simplistic, I admit, but people, communities, cultures, nations build their self-perceptions around these highly selective, inevitably incomplete, and coincidentally self-impressed tales we can tell about ourselves and others. This isn't new, of course, or probably even news to you. (I've been reading a book about complexity economics in which the author has an extended discussion on stories and humans and includes this quote from some guy named Plato: "Those who tell the stories rule societies." Maybe he'll get some press some day.) In 1987 Robert Reich wrote a terrific book on this--Tales of a New America--that spelled out the four basic national stories we Americans tell to explain the world to us and tell us how to deal with it. I'll just give you the titles he gave them because you'll already know the stories, which was his point--The Mob at the Gates, The Triumphant Individual, The Benevolent Community, and The Rot at the Top. I can promise you that you can fit any description of us, policy, other countries, institutions, whatever into one of these schema once you have them ready in your head.

Even better for interpreting criminal justice activity is the work of Theodore Sasson who, in Crime Talk: How Citizens Construct a Social Problem, used focus groups to delineate the specific tales we tell about crime, how it happens, and what we can (should) do about it. Again, the titles of each should be enough to light the bulb over your head--Faulty System, Blocked Opportunities, Social Breakdown, Media Violence, and Racist System. Notice that all of Sasson's and Reich's story types are variations on the "how we view human nature" stories we tell. And it's not just focus group folks who have and deploy these ready-made tales at hand to interpret the world. It's cops, prosecutors, defense, judges, corrections officials, policymakers. No matter how "objective" their training, how "formal" their rationales and justifications for their actions, behind every one of their decisions is the story they tell about crimes (although it may vary by offense), offenders, and themselves, their profession or job, and their roles in the world. (William Ker Muir's classic Police: Streetcorner Politicians remains a powerful application of the idea for law enforcement.)

This has several implications for corrections sentencing policy, most of them unfortunate. Practitioners frequently will tell stories of crime and punishment about what would work to stop their criminality based primarily on what they know, what "fits" in their stories--incarceration, longer sentences to it, cost-benefit--regardless of those stories' relevance to the stories of the offenders themselves. Result? Policies that might work against law abiders but don't "fit" as well the real world.

We regularly make policy of all kinds based on stories divorced from reality or how those stories interact with the stories of others. Not that bad a deal when a new park isn't used as much as or in the ways we told ourselves it would be. Very bad when those stories lead us down expensive, counter-productive paths. Doubly dangerous when, because they're structured predictably and pretty inflexibly to get us through the world, the stories don't let us consider alternatives that may reflect reality a little closer.

What it means for policymakers serious about dealing with crime and corrections sentencing rather than just adding a few more paragraphs to the novel is that they need to seek out and understand crime from other stories. I've mentioned before how the legitimacy of our laws and justice system is key to crime prevention or its failure. Well, legitimacy is nothing more than the story we tell ourselves. Therefore, policymakers need to learn and respect the legitimacy stories being told. People are willing to pay the non-cost-effective "justice premium" because of the justice stories they tell. Offenders do or do not respond to "reentry" efforts because of the stories we tell them and the ones they use to interpret us. Despite the old fabled fable, it's not turtles all the way down--it's stories. Effective policy in any area of corrections sentencing will understand and work with that. Reentry may be public safety, but, no matter how much evidence you bring to the table to support that, the head-shaking eye-rollers won't buy it until you put it in a story they can accept. Simple as that.

Pretty good story, huh?

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