Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Prisoner Visitation and Recidivism Reduction

Tonight I participated in the winter conference call of the Prison Congregations of America board of directors. We have financial challenges, as many nonprofit organizations after the Great Recession. But the ministry we support — supporting the creation of worshipping communities of faith within prison walls — is growing.

PCA began in 1984, after a white Lutheran pastor named Ed Nesselhuf was called to serve as chaplain in a women’s prison in Maryland where most of the inmates were black. The Lord, they say, works in mysterious ways.

And so the Lord did. By the work of the Spirit, PCA has grown today to include congregations in 11 states, with a twelfth congregation under development in Montana.

One of my fellow board members is Rich Rienstra, who started a prison congregation in Michigan. He shared with the board news of a new report about the value of visiting prisoners. The report showed showed that visiting people in prison can help reduce reoffense rates after their release.

Rienstra cited Pat Nolan of Prison Fellowship Justice Fellowship as his source for this information. When I googled it, however, I found that the recidivism report was actually done by the Minnesota Department of Corrections. It was released in November 2011.

The title of the study is studiedly objective in tone: “The Effects of Prisoner Visitation on Offender Recidivism.” For Christians, though, the subtext is clearly Matthew 25, where Jesus urges us to visit those imprison and promises to be found there.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Jail Time for Libel? Not in English Language Version of 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo'

Translating a popular novel from one culture into a film aimed at another is certainly fraught with challenges. It’s essentially an act of double translation: from one culture to another and also from one artistic genre to another.

A host of artistic choices have to be made. Whatever the end result, it isn’t merely a matter of transposing the content from Form A to Form B.

Yet how odd it initially seems that an American film version of a European crime thriller omits a jail term served by one of the key characters. That is what writer / director David Fincher chose to do, however, in his Anglo Saxon take on the sensational Swedish novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

In the Stieg Larsson original, muckraking journalist Mikael Blomkvist must serve a couple of months in jail as part of his sentence after being convicted of libeling a notorious business tycoon. In Fincher’s film, the sentence consists only of fines, with no jail time or even probation.

One might have thought that including the jail term would be quite natural in a film aimed at American audiences. After all, we are the country that leads the world in incarceration rates, the country sometimes called A Nation of Jailers.

Fincher probably felt that the very liberality of the conditions of Blomkvist’s confinement would make it unintelligible to many Americans. For example, Blomkvist gets to choose when he will serve his jail term. Such discretion is little known in our system, geared as it is toward punishment.

Similarly, the jail term itself, when Larsson’s Blomkvist does serve it, turns out to be a positive experience for him - more like going to a summer camp than to a hellhole. This contrasts sharply with the American perception that a jail term must inevitably evoke constant fear and trembling.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Meta Question For Criminal Justice Research

America spends massive amounts of money on criminal justice — especially on prisons.

It’s big business in a country that incarcerates over two million people and keeps millions more on probation or parole. Nationally, the annual cost to incarceate so many people approaches $70 billion, according to estimates by the Economics of Crime working group at the Bureau of Economic Research.

Of course, America does tend to do things in a big way. I was reminded of this tonight, when listening to Fresh Air. The guest was author Matthew Aid, who said that the number of intelligence analysts working for Uncle Sam has ballooned to 210,000 in the wake of 9/11.

This led me to wonder: If America can afford 210,000 intelligence analysts, what about criminal justice analysts? Is the amount of research that is done to help guide decisions in our sprawling justice system even remotely proportionate to the system’s expense?

The healthcare system has the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and other institutions devoted to research. Their funding is quite ample and their role in developing guidelines for hte delivery of care is significant.

What about criminal justice? It’s true that the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the U.S. Department of the Justice, supports research and issues grants for demonstration projects. There are also various research agencies at the state and sometimes even the local level.

But does our society really invest in enough research to develop an adequate level of knowledge about how the criminal justice system is performing?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Charlie Rose and Criminal Justice: The Dog That Did Not Bark

Charlie Rose's talk show on PBS is a quite remarkable, if highly selective, record of our times. Visiting foreign ministers, actors touting a current movie, and an array of authors make the visit to Rose's studio in New York.

One subject Rose scarcely touches, however, is criminal justice. In the decade that I've been watching the show off and on, I've never seen one devoted to any aspect of the justice system.

This very absence says something about the lack of public dialog of policing, sentencing, and corrections in our public culture. It reminds me of the Sherlock Holmes story where Holmes drew telling inferences from a dog that did not bark.

The dearth of discussion about justice policy on Charlie Rose is like Holmes's dog that did not bark. What is the silence saying?