While the U.S. crime policy focuses more on punitive measures rather than rehabilitation, it is vital young offenders are given the option to turn their lives around and change their behavior. By providing adequately implemented rehabilitation programs, criminals can turn around “changeable behaviors,” which are mostly values, behaviors and antisocial cognitions, thereby lowering recidivism rates.
More importantly, rehabilitation should not only be an option for those wealthy enough to afford its services. Rehabilitation should be the first intervention option for all youth and should be offered above the option of incarceration, regardless of socioeconomic background.
A recent case, in which a Texas judge sentenced 16-year-old Ethan Couch to 10 years probation and an order to attend a $450,000 rehabilitation center, shows the role of wealth in a young offender’s fate. Couch was privileged enough to be sent to Newport Academy, a luxurious treatment center which offers services such as martial arts training, chef-prepared meals and nature hikes.
Ethan Couch was guilty of manslaughter, in which he was responsible for four pedestrian deaths. Although prosecutors pushed for a 20-year prison sentence, a defense psychologist, G. Dick Miller, diagnosed Couch as having “affluenza,” which Miller described as being raised in an indulgent household that coddles irresponsibility. The judge also took into account the offender’s admission of guilt and that his behavior could more likely be reformed and recovered in a rehab facility than in prison.
Crime prevention and lowering recidivism rests on allowing the younger generations a second chance to rehabilitate, educate and turn their life around. Simply throwing young offenders into an institution for an extended amount of time is ineffective. This is in part because most crimes committed by the “at-risk” population are committed in their early to late teens.
Youth undergoing brain development and youth who are highly impressionable stand a chance to clean up their act and become productive members of society. If we respond with incarceration, the criminal justice system hinders their development by disrupting important years of their life during which they may miss out on important educational milestones. It is especially imperative for young offenders who have committed simple drug possession, or other petty crimes, to enter rehabilitation rather than face harsh prison sentences.
Currently, one-third of black males born today will face prison at one point in their lives. African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, and Latino/as at nearly double the rate of whites. Because race, socioeconomic background and crime rates are all closely-correlated factors, African-American or Latino/a offenders often do not have access to the alternative of rehabilitation centers over incarceration. In order to address this disproportionate bias in prison sentencing, rehab facilities need to be more accessible and affordable, especially for offenders from less affluent communities.