‘Soft on crime’? Fault traditional incarceration, says criminal-justice reformer

Under the ambitious realignment of the California correctional system that took effect at the beginning of October, individuals convicted of non-violent, non sex-related crimes are now being sent to county jails rather than state prisons. And that is “extremely exciting,” Sunny Schwartz, the longtime director of jail programming for the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, told a student audience in Wheeler Auditorium on Oct. 5.

Sunny Schwartz

Sunny Schwartz

A nationally known criminal-justice reformer, Schwartz welcomes the opportunity, she said, to bring meaningful programming to prisoners currently being “coddled,” to use the popular jargon, in a massive, costly and ineffective system.

Traditional incarceration is soft, not tough, on crime and criminals, said Schwartz, speaking to hundreds of undergrads in Political Science 179, taught by lecturer Alan Ross. Schwartz said traditional incarceration “is where a prisoner’s day is spent sleeping, playing dominoes and watching Jerry Springer.” The cost to California taxpayers, she noted, is $35,000 to $95,000 per inmate per year — just for “three hots [meals] and a cot” and with “a 70 percent failure rate.” Once released, that is, 70 percent return to criminal custody within three years.

As director of programs in San Francisco County jails, Schwartz was instrumental in developing Resolve to Stop the Violence (RSVP) — a controversial experiment when first introduced 14 years ago. As described in her book, Dreams from the Monster Factory, RSVP is based on three principles of the restorative-justice movement: accountability, community involvement and giving voice to victims. The program houses violent criminals together in an open dorm. They spend most of the day in rehabilitative programming, much of it led by ex-offenders.

Dreams from the Monster Factory: Sunny Schwartz

RSVP’s most dramatic aspect is a weekly “survivor impact” session, at which survivors of violent crimes come in to share their stories with inmates — stories not just of the crimes themselves but of their long-term impact on survivors’ lives. According to Schwartz, inmates who participate in RSVP for five months or more are 80 percent less likely to return to custody for a violent offense.

Alan Ross has offered PoliSci 179 — a popular one-unit course (many take it more than once) featuring weekly lectures by figures in public life from across the political spectrum — for nearly three decades. Podcasts of past speakers can be found on iTunes U. The speaker’s schedule for fall 2011 can be found on Ross’s website.

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