Crime, Prison and Accountability

A 23 year perspective.

Johnny has a troubled childhood. Johnny joins a group of boys. The group of boys makes bad decisions. Johnny gets in trouble and is introduced to the criminal justice system. Johnny is now labeled: “CRIMINAL.”

The Crime

Johnny turns 18, gets caught peddling methamphetamine and goes to jail. In front of the judge, the prosecutor speaks of the inherent evil of this drug and how it’s destroying our society. Johnny’s attorney counters by sharing an upbringing that was less than favorable, a living situation that gravitated Johnny toward a criminal lifestyle, the lack of direction that you would find in a normal home.

Judgement and Prison

The judge listens, considers the facts, thinks about the fact that it’s an election year, the people have expectations; hard on crime, no tolerance for drug-slinging on “our” streets. Johnny is sent to prison for selling methamphetamine. With good time, he should be out on parole in about 18 months, including good time. Johnny is now a FELON.


On parole, Johnny looks for work. The “FELON” label looms over his head, limiting his options. He has few options, based on his current skills, then divide this by those willing to “take a chance” on a felon.

Society knows that if you’re a felon, you will fail again. Society knows that if you ever committed a crime, you will commit recidivate. Society knows that the only way to “fix” you is to lock you up and teach you a lesson. Society knows that locking you up fixes you, makes you a responsible citizen, makes you never want to go back, thus you will shun any form of criminal activity in the future. Society just knows this.

The Fact

The problem with this is that society doesn’t know. Society assumes that fear of punishment will “fix” Johnny. Ironically, it didn’t work the first time, why should it work again?

Photo by Sean Thomas on Unsplash


This thinking is outdated. And no, I’m not a bleeding-heart. I’m a person that is about to retire from working in the field for over 23 years. So yeah, I’ve seen a few things and have mounted my own opinion of the system.

Consider this, your child behaves in a way that is unacceptable in your eyes. You take your child and put them in the corner on “time-out.” We all know that time-out is an age-old, tried and true method of recompense.

Your child is expected to quietly sit there and “think” about what they’ve done. If they act up on the stool, then they will sit a little longer.

When their done, do you just send them back out to play, or do you have a discussion about their behavior and discuss acceptable behavior options in the future? Do you rehash what offense had occurred and future ways that they can resolve or address this behavior when faced with the same set of triggering events? Of course, you do. We call that “GOOD PARENTING.”

Pointing Out The Obvious

You obviously see where I’m going with this. I’m not anti-punishment. I’m anti- not dealing with the specific behavior and the learning of skills to address this behavior in the future. I’m anti- of the simple “lock ’em up” and “they will learn their lesson” mentality. Why? Because it’s NOT working.

Again, I’m not against punishment. There are instances where an individual needs to be removed from society, for the safety of society. But here’s the kicker, most people in prison will someday get out of prison.

If you simply put them in time-out without addressing the issue, then all we are doing is delaying their return to criminal activity, in our community, in your community.

So where do we break this cycle, this turnstile system hovering between free society and prison? There are many critical time periods in an individuals life. You could argue an insertion of a number of influences at any given point. I’m more familiar with the point in time where they are 18 years old and beyond.

This has been my world. What I’m about to say may ruffle a few feathers, especially those of the “lock ’em up” crowd. Just know, I get it. I understand why this line of thinking exists.

The problem is that it’s not treating the problem, it is misdiagnosing the issue and prescribing a medicine that doesn’t work. It may quell the sickness (criminal behavior) for a time, but in all actuality, it simply hides the issue from society’s view; problem solved(?).

Then the person is released from prison and the issue is released back into society. “I thought we treated that?!?” society chimes. No, it wasn’t necessarily treated, it was just hidden from view.

by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash


The answer? Another dose of “out of sight, out of mind,” problem temporarily solved, again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Let’s consider a few “college words” here. The words: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Simply put, there is an event, the person processes the event, the person makes a better behavioral decision (I apologize to those of you familiar with CBT, I know that I just grossly simplified it — see below).

What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that treats problems and boosts happiness by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. Unlike traditional Freudian psychoanalysis, which probes childhood wounds to get at the root causes of conflict, CBT focuses on solutions, encouraging patients to challenge distorted cognitions and change destructive patterns of behavior.

Teaching new behavior and specifically behaviors in relation to outer events. Want me to boil it down a little more? Okay. Making better choices (behavior). Teaching someone acceptable behavior and choices, acceptable actions within the morays of the given society.

The rub is that Johnny doesn’t learn this simply by being sent away for a time-out.

Proposal and Thoughts

Where do we make this change in our criminal justice system? It has to be somewhere within the negotiations between the prosecutor and defense counsel. It has to have buy-in from the judge. It most certainly has to have buy-in from Johnny. It has to, has to, and has to, have buy-in from society. Why?

Society “rewards” judges through re-election. Society “rewards” judges that are tough on crime; aka locking up criminals, locking up Johnny. If the judge doesn’t appear to be tough on crime, society retracts their reward and looks for another viable option to meet their collective conscience.

Overall, it appears that society has to have a change of mindset on this issue. I’m not asking for sympathy for Johnny. We can go about this in a purely, non-emotional style. In fact, it would be better to take the emotion out of this and apply fact and logic. That’s where we’re stuck; removing emotion. After all, the cold truth is that criminal acts draw on emotions and leave victims in its wake.

Unfortunately, until we find a way to overhaul societal views and think longer term — toward the return of Johnny from prison versus the front-end of calling for more prison time — we will continue to build more prisons.

Winding Down

As for me, my retirement from the “system” looms near. Honestly, I’m a little tired. I’ve seen the best of Johnny and the worst version of Johnny. I’ve spoken with an untold number of versions of Johnny over the years. You would think that my view would be soured, hardened, skeptical and pessimistic. Oddly, it’s gravitated the other direction over time. Not a pull toward sympathy, I would say that it’s a move in the direction of non-emotional empathy.

Empathy to me is the attempt to understand the behavior, not to excuse the behavior, but to get to the “WHY.”

Photo by Brunel Johnson on Unsplash

I’m not excusing Johnny’s behavior — to the contrary — I know that in order for Johnny to have a shot at a “normal life,” Johnny has to be held accountable for his actions. It’s the definition of accountability that needs to be addressed.

It’s the penance and learning combined that holds Johnny accountable. Through this accountability, Johnny has a chance. Johnny doesn’t understand how accountability works, in most cases, so it’s left up to society (and specific professionals) to teach him, to give him this opportunity.

However, it’s Johnny’s choice to shun the idea and continue his spiraling cycle. But, Johnny needs the full-on opportunity to learn the importance of accountability, the steps of accountability, the long-term benefits of accountability.

If Johnny gets it, if he truly is able to buy-in to accountability, then Johnny can win. Society can win. Think about it.

Just my two cents, minus taxes of course. Thanks for the read.

Until next time…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: