Good Intentions or Planned Failures?


            I am in a very frustrating profession.  I spend many hours digesting report after report, book after book, article after article, all dealing with the subject of crime and justice.  On many occasions I read with absolute disgust the failure of our crime control policies.  Much of our failure to bring about a significant reduction in crime is our refusal to address some of the major causes of crime, such as poverty and inequality, child abuse and neglect, educational deficiencies and many more.

            We are a “reactive” society in that we wait until a problem has been identified and then we spring into action.  An example is the sorry state of the field of “corrections” – a true misnomer if there ever was one.  On many occasions a treatment program is introduced with much fanfare and great promise.  Most fail for one of two reasons: either the theory behind the program (i.e., a theory of why people commit crime) or the program is not implemented correctly.  Sometimes we discover that both of these reasons are present.  Such was the case with a program that began in Arizona back in the early 1990s.

            The emergence and ultimate failure of a program that promised to reduce youth crime is discussed in great detail in one of the best books ever written on the subject.  Called Youth in Prison (Rutledge, 1997), it is written by M.A. Bortner (professor of Justice Studies at Arizona State University) and Linda Williams (President of the Williams Institute for Ethics and Management).  A “model” program was established at a juvenile prison created after a class action lawsuit (Johnson v. Upchurch, 1986) charged that the “policies, practices, and conditions of confinement” at a juvenile prison near Tucson amounted to “cruel, unconscionable, and illegal conditions of confinement.” 

The program that was instituted was to embrace “collective problem solving” in an “atmosphere of respect” which was to replace inflexible rules that usually dominate prisons.  The program was supposed to “give youths a greater sense of control over their lives, to encourage them to affirm their own worth, and to engender hope for the future” write Bortner and Williams in the first chapter.

Four chapters later, after confronting the demise of the program and the failure to live up to its promises, the authors explain why this happened.  It is not a new story, for it has happened over and over again throughout the history of juvenile “corrections.”  The program’s decline began a mere three months into the program.  It seemed that just about the only people who really wanted this to succeed were the youths themselves and a small number of dedicated staff.  Those in charge wanted first and foremost to satisfy the demands of the lawsuit and to quickly demonstrate success.  There was constant resistance from staff and administrators (with administrators described as “authoritarian” in their management style) plus political opposition from conservative forces. 

More than this, however, was the fact that a model program was set up but the “working conditions for most staff members did not improve” and they continued to receive “low salaries, demanding working conditions, menial tasks, and perceptions of lack of support and respect from superiors.” 

More than this, however, was a more fundamental problem.  The problem can be summarized as follows:  good intentions notwithstanding, even the best “programs” operated within the juvenile and adult “correctional” system are doomed to failure for the simple reason that the various social and personal context that resulted in a person’s problems with drugs, gangs, and violence are left untouched.  The authors write as follows:  “For most youths, going home meant a return to poverty and unemployment, troubled homes, the allure of alcohol and drugs, the dominance of gangs, and daily hardships.”  Indeed, it would be like sending an alcoholic to a 30-day treatment center and then sending him back to a bar and telling him he must “just say no” to alcohol.  The authors note that “unresolved problems awaited the youths when they were released from prison.  Outside the prison, fundamental social conditions remained unchanged.  When they were paroled, within a few days or a few hours youths confronted the same old pressures and many reverted to familiar responses and solutions.”  The authors also perceptively note that these youths “are placed in an untenable position when they are encouraged to change their behavior and to develop high aspirations, only to return to their virtually unchanged communities.”

Not surprisingly, some youths did not want to leave the prison, for inside they were safe and they were able to adjust to the surroundings.  This phenomenon has been called “institutionalization” or “prisonization” by researchers going back more than 50 years. 

Many youths spoke of the inevitability of returning to their old ways of behaving, as if they had no alternatives.  They may be correct in such an assessment.  Some described the temptations of their old life as “sucking” them back in.  Where are they supposed to go live when they get out?  Staff members suggested finding new friends who are not into gangs and drugs.  But the only way to do this would be to literally move!

One additional problem emerged within this program and points to the common failure of implementation: the failure to establish a substance abuse program, which was the last of three specialized, intensive programs developed.  This despite the fact that around 90 percent of the youths had used drugs.  The first specialized unit was for “sexually aggressive behaviors,” in spite of the fact that less than 10 percent were charged with such crimes.  Another priority was to address violent behavior, although less than 40 percent had committed violent offenses.  The authors note that the program’s “failure to confront the youths’ extensive drug and alcohol problems mirrored society’s failure.”  My suspicions are that these priorities reflect the personal priorities of key political figures in the state.

This makes me wonder if these are simply planned failures rather than good intentions gone awry.  If those who have the power really cared, the social conditions that lead youth to crime and drugs would be eliminated.  But why eliminate such conditions when you and your class directly or indirectly benefit from their existence?