Rehabilitation of Felony Offenders Possible? Desirable?
As the global economic downturn continues to adversely affect federal and state budgets across the board, one of the hardest hit areas has been the nation's penal system. Dwindling budgets have caused layoffs and cutbacks in many prison systems, and many facilities are at their limit already with no end to the steady stream of felons in sight. Unfortunately, even when they are released, many felons reoffend, violate their parole or otherwise become once again involved with the criminal justice system and are returned to prison. Given the combination of scarce resources and a burgeoning prison population, it just makes good sense to ask whether the rehabilitation of felony offenders is possible, and if so, is this a desirable outcomes for the nation's prison systems? To answer these questions, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
The United States enjoy the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate for felons among the democratic nations of the world (Sennott & Galliher, 2006). Although definitions of felonies vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction (Estaver, 2005), by legal definition, felons have been convicted of committing serious crimes, including offenses such as rape, murder and kidnapping (Felony, 1999). Being more severe types of crimes, felonious offenses are punishable by death or incarceration in a penitentiary for more than one year (Felony, 1999), meaning these criminal offenders will remain in a jail only long enough to be transferred to a prison in a competent jurisdiction where they will serve the remainder of their sentence. In this regard, Saxonhouse notes that, "Although the term 'felony' commonly refers to serious crimes punishable by imprisonment for at least a year, or by death, it may include seemingly minor crimes. In Maryland, injuring a racehorse, issuing a verbal threat, and possessing fireworks without a license are felonies" (2004, p. 1597).
For those felony offenders who have completed a prison sentence as a result of the criminal offense are faced with an enormous array of barriers that prevent their smooth reintegration into American mainstream society. For example, as part of their punishment, felons are frequently denied the right to vote. According to Sennott and Galliher, "The Constitution gives authority for determining elector qualifications to the individual state governments. Some state laws disenfranchise convicted felons only while they are in prison, and some extend it to their time on probation or parole; in others, lifetime disenfranchisement is only activated by a second felony conviction, while in Florida and Iowa, this occurs on the first conviction" (2006, p. 80). This practice, dating to the Civil War, has been criticized by law enforcement and criminal justice organizations as unduly stigmatizing and needlessly punishing felon offenders who have already served their time and therefore paid their price to American society. For instance, a policy statement issued by the American Correctional Association clearly states that "Voting is a fundamental right in a democracy and it considers a ban on voting after a felon is discharged from correctional supervision to be contradictory to the goals of a democracy, the rehabilitation of felons and their successful reentry to the community" (ACA policies and resolutions, 2005, p. 63).
Besides losing the right to vote, there are some other profound obstacles placed in the way of felony offenders upon their release that adversely affect their chances at rehabilitation. For instance, Saxonhouse reports that, "Depending on the jurisdiction and the crime, felons who have served their sentences and are no longer under any sort of state supervision may nevertheless be unable to vote, obtain certain types of employment, receive food stamps, qualify for student loans, maintain parental custody, or even pick up their children from school. Noncitizens will be deported" (2004, p. 1598). Furthermore, it is not only career criminals who are treated in this fashion. For instance, Saxonhouse adds that, "In many cases, blanket provisions mean that nonviolent, first-time offenders are subject to the same restrictions as hardened criminals" (2004, p. 1598). Indeed, recently released felons consistently report they experience these types of problems as well as problems securing the basic requirements of living including, most especially, even a place to live (Halsey, 2007).
Although these additional societal strictures may be viewed as harsh (and they are), some analysts argue that they are needed as a response to the types of crimes that have been inflicted…