Smart Justice: More than One Way to Explain the Importance of Reducing Recidivism
As a society, are we willing to invest financial resources to decrease recidivism? When that question is asked in such a vague format, the public would mostly agree. It is assumed the logical step would be to spend more money for additional prison space and keep prisoners incarcerated for longer periods of time to reduce the rate of recidivism. However, when it is proposed that money should be used to educate and improve working skills of prisoners, the response most likely would be different. Have we as a culture short-sided our options to diminish the rate of recidivism?
John Cappas, a former drug kingpin in Chicago and current anti-drug activist, recently spoke to a group of students enrolled in Restorative Justice and Community Justice classes at Governors State University, on April 23, 2013. Mr. Cappas began his presentation by explaining that he was the leader of an illegal drug enterprise for approximately two years in the late 1980s in the Chicago south suburban area. He was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to a 45 year prison term. While in prison, Mr. Cappas aggressively worked on his appeal, which led to the reduction of his sentence to 15 years.
Appreciating the fact that he would not be released from prison until he was in his late 60s, John Cappas started working on a plan to make himself a productive member of society upon his release from prison. Mr. Cappas used Pell grants to earn a BA in business administration with a minor in psychology from the University of Wisconsin. Still with plenty of time before his release date, Mr. Cappas earned his culinary certification and eventually became a teacher to new prison students entering the program.
Once Mr. Cappas was released from prison, he began working in the auto industry as a salesperson and then as a financial officer, achieving a respectable salary. John Cappas eventually left the auto industry and purchased a hot dog stand, putting into practice the culinary skills he acquired in prison. Once Mr. Cappas felt secure with his decision to become a business owner, he began to reflect on his criminal past. He wanted to give back to the community as an anti-drug activist to make amends for past indiscretions, or as he has stated, he wanted to do penance for his past acts.
John Cappas often speaks publicly about his past and his present, and he frequently fields tough questions, as he did during his talk with students at Governors State University. During the question and answer session of his speaking engagement, one individual stated that she does not believe it was fair that he received a free college education while most of the audience had to take out student loans to pay for theirs. Mr. Cappas said that he understood the sensitive side of the issue, and that it was not fair that honest citizens had to go in debt to pay for their college education while convicted criminals had the opportunity to earn a free college education. However, on the dispassionate side, Mr. Cappas stressed that from a taxpayer’s perspective, it is advisable to give convicted criminals the ability to acquire an education and employment skills to become productive members of society, rather than to release them with few additional skills or keep them incarcerated for long periods of time.
The individual who asked the question was not satisfied with Mr. Cappas’ answer and continued to press him on the subject of the unfairness of free education and skill training for convicted criminals. Mr. Cappas, observing that his response was not convincing her, switched to an emotional viewpoint. John Cappas expressed two personal stories he observed while in prison. First, he told of the many times he witnessed individuals who survived numerous years in prison yet showed total fear in their eyes when their discharge date was approaching, suggesting that a lack of release preparation does more harm than good. The subject of the second story came to John Cappas while watching the movie, “Executioner’s Song.” In one part of the movie, the main character murders two men in two separate robberies. Mr. Cappas asked out loud “Why did he have to do that?” The person sitting next to him yelled out that he had to do what he had to do to survive. John Cappas then posed a question to the individual pressing him on the injustice of free education for prisoners, “What if the people in the film that got shot were people you knew and the shooter was an ex-prison felon and he had the mindset that he had to do what he had to do to survive?” Mr. Cappas followed up by asking, “Would the public be better off releasing criminals into the streets with no chance of surviving other than to continue criminal activities?” The student did not have an answer.
In conclusion, it is understandable to identify with the frustration of the student asking the question about why prisoners should receive a free college education while honest, hard-working individuals have to go into debt to receive the same benefit. Nonetheless, we must ask ourselves, “As a society are we willing to invest the financial resources in education and work skill programs to reduce recidivism while prisoners are incarcerated?” It is a hard statement to sell to the public in today’s financial times. On the other hand, it is not realistic, financially or constitutionally, to keep prisoners incarcerated for extended lengths of time without opportunities for self-improvement that will reduce the rate of recidivism. Incorporating John Cappas’ emotional approach, along with the financial cost argument of investing in educational programs and work skill training in prisons to reduce the rate of recidivism can be a winning approach.
Bio: Danny Romeo has worked for the Cook County Sheriff’s office in their alternatives to incarceration programs for approximately 20 years. Currently, he is on medical disability (due to Multiple Sclerosis), and is working on his Master in Criminal Justice at Governors State University, University Park, Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.