Commentary: Let’s address recidivism realistically

Attorney General Kathy Jennings suggested that reforms in our justice system addressing current laws, stack charging and the sentencing guidelines would improve our recidivism rate.

However, addressing our mass probation system would improve our recidivism more quickly and more dramatically than any other choice.

In our small state of Delaware there are about 17,000 people on probation, more than three times the prison population. An extravagant cost to our taxpayers and a tremendous burden on a probation system.

The mass probation equals a high ratio of probationers to officers. This leaves little or no time for the probation officer to address and help their clients with individual needs. Instead of being counseled, clients are treated like this is a police state and they’re still in prison.

Most office visits that are conducted as follows; you check in and wait 45 minutes to an hour. You’re called and walk ahead of your P.O. to his or her office. You go through the routine questions, Any problems? Nope. Still working? Yes. Any drug use? Nope. Any police contact? Nope. Unless you’re scheduled for drug test, it’s; “bye, see you next week”.

The informality of this routine leads clients to believe that the system is nothing more than a watchdog waiting for you to trip up. So let’s be realistic, probation officers are trained to be police and have little if any training in counseling. Time and time again we read in the newspaper that probation officers are involved in major criminal activities without any relevance to probation.

The statistics bear this out as a high percentage of probationers end up back in prison within the year after their release. Often for behavior that would not be a crime if they were not on probation. Two-thirds of the prison’s recidivism rate is due to people being sent back for a violation of probation. The vast majority of them are technical violations, i.e., failing a drug test, late for curfew, not working, missed an appointment, etc. etc.

How can this happen? Why does this happen? In 1971, Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs and if you haven’t seen a movie called, “The House I Live In,” by Eugene Darecki, please sit down and watch with your children or friends. There’s still a war but the war is on freedom — freedom from the monetary oppression due to lack of employment and job skills.

If only our political powers that be looked outside the financial benefits and the benefits from warehousing people in prison and consider practical problems that would help reduce recidivism, i.e., job workshops on how to seek, fill out an application and interview for employment, free up the probation officer giving them more time in training counseling, implement a job programs through probation where employers can seek experienced in capable workers.

In all, we need to come up with better ways to improve the lives of people being returned to society other than placing them on excessive probation and policing them in a never-ending cycle.

I would like to thank Ken Abraham and Steven Hampton, Esq., “What a monster we have created in our justice system”, commentary from March 15. For I was like Johnny on probation, working steady and doing OK. I already completed the recommended so-called drug treatment programs in prison and outside of prison. But I too goofed and blew numbers for drinking in my own house and under the tolerance law I was violated.

The judge, regardless of a recommendation that I be placed back on probation, gave me another 2 1/2 years in prison followed by two years and $13,000 in fines. I call this excessive sentencing. But as you stated, “it is simply job preservation for all involved”.

David Downer, of Dagsboro, is an inmate housed at the Sussex Correctional Institution.

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