Originally published in the Huffington Post
"Recently Released Murderer Goes on Killing Spree, Slaying Two!" It's a headline that we all fear when we think of a murderer being released from prison. But it's one that we are unlikely to ever read.
Whether you are of the school of thought that anyone can be rehabilitated if given proper tools, or if you adopt more of the 'eye-for-an-eye' hard line of our president-elect Trump, who once stated in his book, The America We Deserve, "Capital punishment isn't uncivilized, living murderers is," statistics prove that murderers who have been released from prison are among the least dangerous ex-offenders in this country.
Over 170,000 people, or approximately one in nine prisoners, are serving a "life" sentence in the U.S., according to the U.S. Justice Department, nearly all of whom are murderers.
"Life" doesn't mean a death sentence. In fact, life means something different in every state. For example, in Maryland it means as little as 20 years, while in Indiana it's 45, and in Connecticut, 60. The law books in every state provides a path for everyone who is serving life to one day find freedom. In practice, however, most murderers will never experience the free side of the prison walls again, even though many of them are eligible for it right now.
Perhaps most of us are happy with that. The idea of someone living next door who has taken a life does not breed thoughts of the ideal neighborhood we want to raise our families in. But the reality is that some are released and those who are will almost never be a danger to society.
For those few who have been fortunate enough to find freedom again, according to a special report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Recidivism of Offenders Placed on Federal Community Supervision, a barely perceptible 0.3 percent of ex-federal prisoners who had committed homicide reoffended in any way. As far as recommitting their original crime of murder: zero. As for offenders released from state prisons, the numbers are similarly low.
To put this in perspective, the average rate of recidivism of state prisoners in the U.S. is currently 77 percent. 3 out of every four regular felons will commit another crime within three years of their release. By comparison, the recidivism rate of released murderers is a dream result for the criminal justice system. If they could accomplish the near one percent rate of recidivism of murderers for all other prisoners, prisons would be emptied out today.
How is it possible that the worst of society's offenders are the least dangerous after release?
The overwhelming majority of those with homicidal convictions are young -- often under 18 years of age -- underprivileged minority men (68%). They generally arrive to prison at an immature age, forced to sort through and grow into their lives while behind bars. For some, this hardens the criminal mindset to a point of no return. But for many others, prison is the mind's savior. While it may take longer to mature in a prison setting, with enough time and resolve, a prisoner can find their way to a more positive existence.
Murderers who know they may have an opportunity to one day be released, despite their "life" sentence, tend to take their rehabilitation more seriously. It may take years to get there, which is likely why reentry failure rates are so high for much shorter-term prisoners. But it is not unusual for lifers to accomplish things beyond what most of us would assume their confines would permit.
A recent report from the Maryland Restorative Justice Institute, Still Blocking the Exit, profiled 63 lifers that were eligible for parole and dozens who were recently released. Among them was a common string. All had become educated while behind bars, many achieving college degrees. Everyone had thoroughly participated in prison enrichment programs and skills training. Most had not only accomplished everything asked of them, sometimes even earning the forgiveness and support of their victims’ family members, but they had reached beyond their circumstances to make a better life for those around them, which carried over nicely to their life beyond bars.
"No one disagrees that they were involved in serious crimes that warranted serious consequences" the report concluded. "But with the passage of time, repenting, and hard work, they are not the same people that they were at the times of their crimes."
The number of life-sentenced prisoners continues to grow while those that have the power to decide whether they are free to live their life outside of prison walls once they are rehabilitated are increasingly against their release.
"1,000 Murderers Paroled in California: Not One Has Ever Committed Murder Again."
That is an actual headline.
Those who have taken lives cannot provide repayment by bringing back those whose lives they stole 25, 45 or 60 years ago. But leaving them in prison, when they could be of benefit to society is no means of recompense either. In fact, it's leaves a further burden on those of us who must pay taxes to unnecessarily keep them behind bars, and of course on those who have seen the successful rehabilitation of their loved one.
The purpose of prison made the unfortunate transition from rehabilitation to warehousing a long time ago. But when it is obvious that when an offender has been rehabilitated despite this, and the national statistics prove it to be so, it's time to find a better way.
Perhaps it's time to thoroughly re-examine the approach of our criminal justice system when it comes to those they are housing who are proven the least likely to reoffend.
Prison Lives (www.prisonlives.com) is a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life.
Prison Lives provides prisoners and their families with access to information and resources specific to their circumstances through 500+ page publications, including prisoner resource guides, prisoner education guides and prisoner entertainment guides.