This post is a quick follow up to “Can Social Impact Bonds Solve America’s Prison Problem” based on reader responses. For another in-depth post, check back later this week to learn about new online impact platforms. Join the discussion by commenting here or on Twitter, @hongkonghaiti.
Last week’s post stimulated a debate on approaches to criminal justice reform on Facebook thanks to one of my mentors, Deb Mills-Scofield. Readers raised important points about the systemic nature of the justice system and weighed in on a range of approaches to tackle this issue. As one reader pointed out, “There will not be a silver bullet answer.” The emergence of new ideas, however, show that there are many ways that the U.S. can rethink the status quo. Social impact bonds may be one idea. Here are three more:
1. Transformative justice
Northern Europe has some of the lowest crime rates and most humane prison systems in the world. In Norway, a high security prison “aims to rehabilitate criminals with comfortable and thoroughly modern facilities.” Art, sports, and a hotel-like environment promote prisoners’ personal development and eventual reintegration into society. This system embraces “‘transformative justice,’ which uses a systems approach to view crime in terms of its causes, effects and its educational opportunities for victims, offenders and the wider community.” One reader wrote, “What if we designed schools less like prisons, and prisons more like schools, how would our society be dramatically different?”
It’s hard to know how applicable systems from other countries are in the U.S. Another reader who works in an alternative high school that serves marginalized youth wrote that a solution could consist of
“programs that encourage offenders to develop a sense of themselves as members of a larger community and that allow them to build a positive, productive identity… I think the best thing we can do to reduce the prison population is reform our education system to stop pushing kids who are already disadvantaged and on the fringes of society out the door entirely.”
2. The Prison Problem as a Health Issue
Last year, the Affordable Care Act made headlines for a new reason: it was having a dramatic effect on the U.S. prison population. A new initiative at Brown University’s Swearer Center, TRI-LAB, is bringing together students, professors and community practitioners to tackled social issues. TRI-LAB has awarded a grant to The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights to “develop a future Lab focused on issues of incarceration, race, criminal justice, and health.” The new Center believes that “addressing health disparities is necessary to challenging the status quo of mass incarceration in this country” due to its research that finds:
Only 2% of the general population has some kind of drug dependence issue, as compared to over 50% of state prisoners and up to 90% of jail detainees. Diagnoses of mental illness are similarly disproportionate. Indeed, un- and under-treated mental illness and drug dependence drive the nation’s epidemic of incarceration.
The new project is in the development stage, but will be working on a “knowledge network” of partners and stakeholders to develop better positive sum solutions to these grand challenges.”
3. The Prison Problem as an Education Issue
There is a strong, though small, contingent of organizations approaching the justice system from an educational perspective. For example, I volunteer for the new Bay Area chapter of the Prison Education Project (PEP) and have friends who have supported The Last Mile. Both organizations work to cut recidivism and help former prisoners transition back to society through education, jobs and training in California.
The links go beyond rehabilitative programs. In the U.S., the school-to-prison pipeline has been well-documented, though not necessarily well-addressed. African American boys are suspended from school more than white boys beginning in preschool. For African American girls, children with darker skin tones are viewed as more aggressive, and disciplined more harshly in school.
The U.S. prison problem epitomizes the idea of a “wicked problem,” which are seemingly intractable challenges that can’t be clearly defined, solved, or understood. Wicked problems are usually solved authoritatively, competitively or collaboratively. Ian Gonsher, who is the Associate Director of the Creative Mind Initiative at Brown University and contributed many thoughts for this follow up, offers his approach toward these issues, termed “positive sum activism”:
Positive sum activists approach social problems as opportunities to design a better experience for everyone by understanding the motivations of all stakeholders, creatively expanding constraints, iteratively prototyping using participatory design strategies that emphasize co-creation, empathy, and collaboration, while designing interventions that are win/wins; looking at justice not as retributive or punitive (i.e. zero sum strategies), but as transformative.
Thank you to everyone who weighed in on this complicated issue and contributed diverse, thoughtful and informed perspectives! You can join the conversation by commenting here, on Twitter, or on LinkedIn.