AUSTIN/CAMBRIDGE – When Texas Republican Congressman Jerry Madden was appointed as chairman of the House Corrections Committee in 2007, he did so by saying, “Don’t build new prisons. They cost too much”. Since then Texas saw crime levels reduced and three prisons being closed, according to a report by Danny Kruger for BBC News. But that’s not where it ends. The most interesting part is that the project that started out of a financial concern, now receives applause for its relational and inclusive approach.
So what is it that Texas discovered? The impact of relationships! Don’t treat the offender as an individual unit of criminality. Instead of an institutional approach and trying to tackle socio-eonomic factors that might have made the offender more vulnerable to commit crime, the “The Right on Crime”-initiative started looking at the offender and his or her personal choices. Another key point is that most offenders are getting worse instead of better when in prison. Incarcerating offenders together carries the risk of forging closer relationships inside the criminal community. And finally, the importance of keeping an offender connected to the world and community outside prison. Initiatives developed in Texas include a scheme where prisoners are matched with business people and where they, upon release, are settled in residential community. And the statutory system offers “immediate, comprehensible and proportianate sanctions for bad behaviour plus accountaibility to a kind leader and supportive community”, writes Kruger.
Despite the apparent success of the Texas-aspproach, what seems to be missing is the reference to the relational context of the offender and the impact on third parties. A large number of crimes are committed against other individuals, and represent a trauma within a particular relationship – even if the offender and the victim have not previously interacted. Also, criminality itself is often associated with problems in offenders’ past relationships, including, typically, a dysfunctional family background or a sense of exclusion from social groups. In other words, it is hard to understand or rehabilitate an offender if the relational context is not being taken into account.
But in the end, what the story does highlight is that money cannot solve problems that are caused by a lack of strong relationships. As Kruger states: “It cuts crime, saves money and demonstrates love and compassion towards some fo the most excluded members of society. It is, in a sense (…) a realistic visionof a smaller state, where individuals are accountable for their actions and communities take responsibility for themselves and their neigbours.”
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