Mandatory Sentences

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Mandatory SentencesHuman beings are basically creatures of conditioned reflex. Sometimes the conditioning takes place on a complicated level. Sometimes it’s simple. Behavioral scientists offer numerous examples of how reinforcement works. It’s perhaps immediate or potential and can be either positive or negative. Conditioning is what all learning relies upon at its most basic level. The effects of variable conditioning techniques are the reason why people don’t need to stick their fingers into a light socket to know they shouldn’t do it. It is also seen in the motivation for humans who sit in front of a slot machine, popping in coins and pulling the handle, over and over again when they are rewarded only occasionally. Which one is more powerful? Which is better? That argument is fundamental to conflict in the different approaches to dealing with our criminals.

Many governments still struggle with the death penalty, for instance. Many religious texts say that we should not kill one another. Yet, “an eye for an eye” seems fair to the same perspective. Our goal is not to solve the problem here, but to shed light by way of facts on the general subject.

In a growing number of correctional facilities, more and more emphasis is being put on rehabilitation rather than punishment for the incarcerated. Naturally, some are outraged. Others, such as Sheriff Leroy Baca, of Los Angeles County, points out this one overwhelming statistic to make his case: The more education an inmate receives while in jail, the less likely they are to commit new crimes once released.

One former correctional administrator, Bruce Burgin said it this way: “We’ve seen ‘em come and we see ‘em go, and sometimes we see ‘em come back again. But more and more often we find that efforts to educate have helped a former inmate stay out of jail and become a productive member of society once again. That’s why we are doing what we’re doing.”

Judges at the state and federal level are seeing the impact of education and including in sentencing stipulations that relate directly to their length of stay.  According to Tony Stello, California Education Director (in 1999), new rulings even compel non-English Speakers to learn the English-as-a-second language. “These laws affect both those who are citizens and those who are not, those who face being deported upon completion of their terms.” Current sentencing laws are such that by performing various jobs behind bars or going to school, in the prison education program, an inmate vests what is called, good conduct time. This is a credit that the individual is earning toward being released earlier than their regularly sentenced time. For every day that they are good, or not involved in a negative incident they are credited on a schedule set by the courts. For an average one-year sentence, for instance, an inmate may receive between 54 and 42 days of sentence reduction. In the Bureau of Prisons rules and regulations, a prisoner is exempt from work or education programs is they are going to leave the country upon release. However, those who choose not to participate voluntarily are also not eligible for these incentives. One of these incentives is that different jobs pay different dividends. Jobs are further ranked according to pay and status. To hold a job at the highest rank requires the greatest level of education. “Originally,” continued Stello, “we had we had a similar requirement of literacy for all inmates, at the sixth grade level. Then it was eighth grade and finally a mandatory high school diploma or GED. What this means in terms of implementation is that each prisoner who does not already have a high school diploma or GED is given a mandatory 240 hours of instruction, regardless of their literacy level. If they quit or are kicked out of the program before that time, they are not eligible for any further schooling or incentives.”

In the Los Angeles County Jails, educational alliances hae come in many different (and sometimes unusual) forms. The custody division of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, which supports the largest jail education program in the U.S. (and probably the world) has therefore been forced to make unusual alliances for the sake of its own fiscal benefit. Sometime two or more major concerns overlap. After all, it costs money to operate both schools and jails, even if they are in the same space. Solving this problem can double the headache for correctional administrators, or the Sheriff himself, but the commitment remains because the facts are clear: Education lowers recidivism.

L.A. County Sheriff Leroy Baca with Gordon Richiusa

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Gordon Richiusa About Gordon Richiusa

Gordon Richiusa is an Italian American who has been a martial artist for some 50 years. He teaches the Five Bird System. Gordon earned a Master of Arts degree in English and has written numerous articles, stories, books and scripts under his own name and his pen-name, Gordon Rich. He has been a teacher of English Composition, Film as Literature, Creative Writing, and Scriptwriting and He holds two teaching credentials.