There are those among us who do not believe prison sentences for criminals serve any useful purpose.
After all, we frequently read about repeat offenders receiving additional terms of confinement after committing additional crimes.
Apparently, prison had little or no rehabilitation effect on those who resume a life of crime and to some, prison is simply an accepted part of doing business. Many hard-core drug dealers fall into this category.
There are many reasons why the federal government and all 50 states have a system of laws and a penal system to house those who choose not to obey them, but there are three main purposes for putting criminals behind bars. Let’s break it down.
First, wrongdoing and criminal activity should have a strictly negative impact on the actor. Criminals should not be rewarded for their illicit activities. Put in my words, stupidity should hurt.
Most states and Texas in particular have provisions in both the Texas Penal Code and the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure authorizing the government entity to seize the ill-gotten gains accumulated as a result of criminal activity.
We see this frequently in the seizure of vehicles used during the commission of drug and property crimes. On a larger scale, I have witnessed the seizure of multimillion-dollar homes, estates and aircraft, which were deemed by the courts to have been acquired with the proceeds of a criminal enterprise.
Secondly, the penal system makes an earnest effort to rehabilitate incarcerated criminals to the extent of training them in numerous trades and even making a taxpayer-funded college-level degree available to some of them. This one irks me to some degree, considering that I worked and paid for my education and that of my children, as did most of you.
Rehabilitation of a criminal only works if they are kept in a controlled environment with strict supervision and stable, predictable living conditions. To attempt rehabilitation in a parole environment is doomed to failure. The criminal must choose to be rehabilitated. The system can only make rehabilitation available. The criminal must choose to be rehabilitated.
According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, four out of 10 felony offenders commit additional felony crimes within three years of release. That equates to about 43 percent recidivism. This rate is much lower for older offenders and those who have a high school diploma and a steady job.
Third, most criminals, particularly those who are convicted of violent crimes, should be isolated from society as a measure to protect the public at large.
Frequently, criminals convicted of violent crimes committed against the public will commit violent crimes inside the prison system.
For this reason, the Texas prison system has a lock-up inside the lock-up, so to speak.
Offenders are separated into four categories: general population for usually nonviolent, rule-following offenders; close custody for those offenders requiring more intense supervision and less freedom; administrative segregation for those too violent or disruptive to associate with other offenders; and solitary confinement.
In the latter two groups, offenders are single-celled with little or no freedom. Supervision is intense. Meals are served on trays at the cell. None of these offenders are transported anywhere without handcuffing behind the back and a dual escort.
It is debated that offenders who commit minor crimes should not be sentenced to prison, but should be assessed a more lenient punishment. I agree, as do the vast majority of states and the federal government.
Sentencing guidelines in the Texas Code of criminal Procedure ensure that first-time offenders who commit minor misdemeanor crimes do not receive sentences of incarceration in a felony punishment facility.
First-time, low-level misdemeanor crimes are seldom, if ever, punished with incarceration.
The vast majority of offenders in the Texas penal system are felons with multiple convictions.
John Vander WERFF is a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, with a decade in city and county law enforcement and 20 years with state police.