Today is Thursday, August 10, 2022. I’m preparing to leave for John Wayne Airport. My wife and I will travel to Philadelphia for a few days to attend an annual conference for the American Correctional Association. As someone who served 26 years in federal prison, some people don’t think I belong in such gatherings. I expect that more than 3,000 people will attend the conference. Attendees hold leadership positions in state or federal prisons or sell resources to operate prisons.
I attend conferences to advance innovative ideas about justice and reform. I don’t have to convince our community that the system would operate more effectively with the promise of incentives rather than threats of further punishment. Prison administrators need this message. To succeed, we need to show how and why incentivizing excellence will improve outcomes for every aspect of the system.
Incentives are part of the American way. People build intrinsic motivation when they see a pathway to a better outcome. For example, people who want to advance career opportunities may work than others to develop credentials and resources. Hard work may not guarantee a higher income, but a disciplined strategy can accelerate pathways to success.
Our judicial system, on the other hand, doesn’t incentivize excellence. The system measures justice with the turning of calendar pages. We sentence people to 10 months or 100 months, or 500 months as if extracting time from an offender will somehow punish an offender sufficiently to get the outcome we want.
We’ve built an entire ecosystem around that concept. But recidivism rates show that the longer we expose a person to “corrections,” the less likely a person becomes to live as a law-abiding, contributing citizen. Sometimes we have to rethink the purpose of a system.
People who staff prisons don’t always welcome the message I bring. For decades, the system has conditioned people to accept a negative mantra:
- People should not commit crimes if they can’t do the time.
- Society should not reward people for doing what they’re supposed to do.
- If a judge sentenced a person to prison, our job is to carry out the judge’s orders.
I bring a different message. We do not succeed or achieve our desired outcome by locking a person in a cage and waiting for calendar pages to turn. To get the outcome we want, we need reforms that will open opportunities for more people to work toward higher levels of liberty through merit. We need changes that allow people to earn freedom.
That is the goal.
I look forward to bringing this message to a group of people who may not be so receptive. It’s okay to face rejection and negativity. Serving multiple decades in prison has conditioned me to expect such responses to my message. But I’m committed to working toward the outcomes that I want.
Our community should do the same. If you’re committed to building a better life and putting challenges with the criminal justice system behind you, start sowing seeds for a better life. Build a body of work that shows the value you can bring the lives of others. If you begin sowing seeds today, you will build tools, tactics, and resources that will help you succeed. Work hard to avoid the collateral consequences of a criminal charge. No one should fight harder for your success than you.