In recent weeks we have been shocked and appalled at the costs necessary to rehab and expand our present county jail because of need. Our Riverhead facility is overcrowded, dirty and understaffed.
People who commit crimes should be held accountable, but should not be treated disrespectfully and without dignity. Do not misread this; I am not an advocate of country club type prisons. However, I am an advocate for treating people respectfully, even if they are not respectful. I am also an advocate for trying to use taxpayers' dollars more towards rehabilitation than towards being punitive.
Look at the cost for incarcerating a person in Riverhead for a year, with little or no rehabilitative services. Most of us could put a substantial down payment on a house on the North Shore. We spend a fortune to imprison someone, but to what end? When someone is ready to be released, what is the plan? What arrangements have been made to protect us from being victimized again by a person's poor decisions?
In our county, if you are sentenced to jail time, when you are finished you are given back what you came to jail with and enough money to get a bus ticket west from Riverhead.
If you have utilized the Office of Chaplains, you might have some leads on emergency housing, treatment programs if needed and maybe entry level employment.
However, most leave Riverhead with nothing. If one does not have a family to return to, one has even less than nothing.
The recidivism rate is escalating at an alarming rate. The present plan for jail expansion is already obsolete. Every day and week that we wait, the costs continue to increase and the expansion space becomes more and more inadequate.
It seems to me that those in power need to think outside the box. Our criminal justice system needs to move beyond merely warehousing lawbreakers and social deviants.
In Riverhead, how many inmates are there because of drug and alcohol offenses? How many of those offenses are addiction driven and not criminally motivated? Drug addicts, alcoholics and drug dealers need to be held accountable. I am not suggesting for a minute that we should not hold them accountable.
However, if their criminal behavior is driven by their addiction, should we not try to hold them accountable in a way that might empower them to be productive citizens?
Some of the cynics reading this will say doing that is a waste of time. After more than twenty-five years of working with addicts, I must emphatically say that it is never a waste of time to try to save a life from human destruction.
Unfortunately, in the name of being cost effective, we set people and programs up for failure. If we are not willing to pay for competent and well trained staff and if we are not willing to support the time intervals that are vital to empowering recovery and not just abstinence, then we are just going to continue to fill our jails with drug addicts and alcoholics. They are never going to get better. In the final analysis, they are going to cost us triple what we need to spend if we only did things right in the first place.
Our present County leadership uses the rhetoric of wanting to be cost effective and compassionate. Unfortunately, we were barely making ends meet under the previous administration. This administration's approach to criminal justice and human services is bordering on sheer recklessness.
There is tremendous waste in our county on many levels, but not in the area of delivery of services. If we continue to cut back personnel and services in those most vital areas of human concern, we are going to continue to set people up for failure. We will continue to burn out and drive out of public service some of our finest civil servants. How much abuse can human beings take? How long can they be asked to do the work of two or three professionals? How long can caring professionals participate in a system of government that abuses citizens in need? This administration can no longer take any more blood from a stone.
We are alarmed about overcrowding in our jails. What about the proposed shelter for troubled children that is still in limbo? Things are not getting better; they are getting worse. The profile of the troubled adolescent no longer merely deals with truancy from school or breaking curfew. Now we have eleven year olds who are involved in drive by shootings, dealing crack cocaine and mugging people for kicks.
These unfortunate circumstances are not restricted to our economically challenged neighbors. They are infecting all of our communities. What resources are in place to respond to these horrific situations?
If the truth be told, there are few to none. If these young people get involved in Family Court, depending on the judge, there is limited hope for some kind of positive intervention. But, even the sympathetic judges have limited resources at their disposal.
Building bigger jails is not the solution to our growing criminal justice problem. We need to break the cycle of social deviance and criminal behavior when it first begins. We need to create additional resources that are effective, competent and accessible to all families in need.
Oppositionally defiant behavior is a serious dysfunction. If your son or daughter is using street drugs and pills on a regular basis, it is probably not going to be just a phase. Don't wait for him/her to be arrested and shackled by the justice system before you try to help your child. If you do it now, it might not be too late!
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