- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

Crime has declined for eight consecutive years while a massive prison build-up has almost doubled the number of Americans behind bars to 2 million. Another 4.1 million are out on probation or parole, and 2 out of 3 of them are felons.

The crime decline certainly suggests prison works but the latest fashion in criminal justice circles is to worry about what to do about the growing number of prisoners set free each month. All but 5 percent of inmates eventually get out and most do not seem to be rehabilitated. According to the Justice Department, an estimated 585,000 felons will be released from state and federal prisons this year, and 62 percent will be charged with new crimes.

Arrests and convictions for major crimes, of course, are merely the tip of the criminal iceberg. A recent study of 107 adult probationers in Northern Virginia, for example, found that 2 percent or less of self-reported crimes resulted in arrests and even fewer in convictions. As my son Cameron Reynolds, a Texas criminal defense attorney and former assistant district attorney, says, "It takes a lot to get to prison."

What to do about the high relapse rate after release? Release involves little preparation and follow-up. The system is set up to produce failure, says John Carver III, District of Columbia parole chief.

Attorney General Janet Reno believes the answer lies in nine pilot projects known as re-entry courts, modeled after drug courts, as well as demonstration projects designed to increase counseling, therapy, training and support for returning convicts. She wants millions in new money for intensive court supervision that would parallel or replace the existing parole system.

Marc Maurer of the Sentencing Project dissents from this new bureaucratic plan and says we already know what is needed: Education, health and job services for the ex-offender.

Both are wrong. They should interview Stanton Samenow or absorb his 1998 book, "Straight Talk About Criminals." Here is the rare psychologist who understands criminals and has helped many to become responsible human beings.

Conventional wisdom about helping criminals, while well-intended, is totally wrong. Criminals are not hapless victims of disadvantaged circumstances who just need more understanding and resources. They rejected school, jobs and the straight life long before they rejected him.

Instead, people become criminals through conscious choice, says Mr. Samenow. People resist accepting the fact that there are individuals who regularly choose evil over good. People from all sorts of environments choose to commit crimes.

Criminality resides within the individual, not the environment, which only provides greater or less opportunity, according to Mr. Samenow. The criminal is a victimizer who injures others in pursuit of excitement and his own ego gratification, not the victim at which he is well versed as portraying himself. He has an unprincipled predator, almost another breed of human being.

Behavior is largely the result of the way a person thinks, says Mr. Samenow, so the criminal must change his way of thinking. Most efforts to help criminals go straight overlook this inconvenient fact.

Rehabilitation is a misconception when applied to criminals. The criminal cannot be restored to something he never was. Habilitation means changing the way the offender thinks, not tinkering with his social conditions. Habilitation does not dictate his decisions but helps him to change his thinking process so that he functions responsibly.

To succeed, counselors and other professionals who work with criminals must adopt a stance at odds with their current training, says Mr. Samenow. Instead of trying to comfort the afflicted, they have the unpleasant task of getting the criminal to look in the mirror at himself and recognize his worst features. The counselor must afflict the comfortable criminal. And it is a long and tedious process to convert a criminal into a person who chooses to deal with life responsibly.

Some people with a criminal personality are not willing to change. Society must be protected from these predators, so they are a writeoff. That is surely what prisons are for. Others are amenable to habilitation and they clearly have the capacity to make different choices. Knowing how their minds work and approaching them when they are vulnerable (willing to change) can start them on the road to personal responsibility.

Legal leverage helps to provide vulnerability. The threat of bad consequences stimulates motivation to change.

Mr. Samenow's theory explains a lot. Boot camps and similar programs fail because they are like trying to kill a weed by snipping off the top but failing to pull it up by the roots. Isolated programs to teach specialized occupational or social skills fail because they do not change the thinking processes necessary to use skills responsibly.

The downside to Mr. Samenow's insights is that individual reform is demanding, time-consuming and expensive. That leaves lots of room for prison expansion.

Morgan Reynolds is director of the National Center for Policy Analysis' Criminal Justice Center in Dallas, Tex., as well as a professor at Texas A&M; University.

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