Trendspotting – The Year of Our Discontent

Human nature almost demands a time of taking stock. We can ignore the mirror, scales, bank statements and dashboard warning light for a while, but everyone knows that sooner or later the piper demands payment. For some reason the end of the calendar year is when most of us allow a little extra time for due diligence.

As with any year, some events take on a proportion larger than others and become the legends that define our history or even our culture. Much of this is a matter of perspective and significance only to the eye of the beholder. Since 24-hour news coverage has redefined our access to information (and often our perspective), choosing the defining moments has become much more difficult.

Those of us who are part of the community of corrections, in whatever form that may assume, experienced changes in 2005 that are likely to follow us into 2006. In my year-end taking stock, I counted five universal “truths” recognizing that on a personal basis, each of us would include many others.

  • We have been warned for years to “think globally and act locally.” Who among us would have believed any soothsayer 20 years ago who dared to suggest that awarding the 2008 Olympics to Beijing would have any discernible impact on prison construction costs in the United States? Certainly, the Olympics is not the catalyst for a building revolution in China that has redefined the country, but the combined impact of China’s insatiable appetite to build and the interrupted oil flow in the Middle East – just to mention two issues – has in the twinkling of an eye measurably altered our ability to act locally.

    In October, construction giant SKANSKA circulated an internal paper called “Pricing Trends and Alerts” that essentially explained in lay terms what is causing pricing changes in each major construction component. The increases are virtually all in building materials, rather than labor. The paper concluded with the note that the Association of General Contractors has forecasted an overall increase in construction cost of at least 10 percent next year, and that was before the impact of Hurricane Katrina was calculated. With rising building material costs, we should not be surprised with reductions in scale, scope and quality.

  •  Leaving aside the very significant impact that Katrina will have on construction costs, the implications for social order and our perception of equal justice have left an indelible mark on the role of corrections. The first of the lessons has to do with emergency planning for the safety of staff and the incarcerated. The combination of a hurricane followed by floods, with the attendant loss of all electrical systems, raises important questions about evacuation and interim quarters. We are reminded again of the responsibility to maintain order even when the well-being of families of correctional staff is uncertain.

    A second lesson from Katrina is that even if a correctional facility is not safe for inmate lockdown, the facility could become an emergency shelter for the community capable of providing housing, meals, medical services, and even recreation for children on a temporary basis.

    The third lesson has to do with the management of interruptions to the entire justice system. The loss of court records – not only in the Gulf Coast communities, but again recently in Palm Beach and Broward counties – reminds us that the cost of redundancy pales in comparison to the financial and human cost of interruptions in the flow and management of information. The hurricane season of 2005 will forever change the way we predict, plan and protect.

  •  Quite a few public referenda seeking permission to build additional justice facilities were included on local ballots this past November, and many failed to win voter approval. At the same time, jail and prison population levels are climbing again to pre-2000 heights, resulting in a return to previous crowded conditions, if they ever diminished. A few dedicated sales tax increases and at least one major bond issue in Denver passed, but most requests for public financing of bed space expansion failed to gain approval.

    In at least one instance, the public sent the message to “try something else,” but mostly, the message seemed to be that additional jail beds are not a priority. Nationally, the move to try something else is gaining momentum and the latter half of this decade may witness a sea change in how we incarcerate and rehabilitate while maintaining public safety. Traditional roles and responsibilities will have to change, as well as the public’s attitude toward justice.

  •  The term “best practices” has been applied to a host of programs that are aimed at managing the shifts in priorities. Through persistence, we have proven that the “nothing works” notion of the 1970s was a clever sound bite, but inconclusive at best and inaccurate at worst. The recent International Corrections and Prison Association Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, featured several social scientists who introduced new evidence on topics ranging from psychopathy to risk assessment, and models for offender rehabilitation. One of the most fascinating presentations was from Dr. Sheilagh Hodgins, a Montreal professor, who presented 30 years of data on the defining characteristics of life-course-persistent offenders. Apparently, the proclivity for a lifetime of harm can be spotted on the daycare playground.

    With the shifting priorities that may be occurring, the corrections community will do well to look more toward social science in the selection of programs that offer an alternative to incarceration rather than simply rely on the political whim of moment, an example of which is boot camps.

  • As the last days of 2005 clicked by, the evening news seemed to have found another item to report that undoubtedly raised the anxiety level of the public. National newscasts have featured stories in the past several weeks of escapes in Washington, Texas, South Carolina and Iowa. No one is suggesting this is a trend in the same way that increasing construction costs or shifts in correctional priorities are becoming, but the connection is apparent.

    Just this week, a friend asked me if the reported increase in escapes had anything to do with the reductions in staff that many jurisdictions have experienced. Most correctional professionals agree that the greatest majority of escapes result from human error, and the epidemic reductions in staff in 2005 cannot be dismissed as a contributing factor. But the prime-time publicity will undoubtedly cause a shift in priorities for staff training. If anything good at all can come from a greater public awareness of the recent escapes, perhaps it will be greater support for funding programs and staff that reduce crowding and re-offending.

The sum is that 2005 was not a banner year for the correctional profession. But then success in our field has never been easy to measure. As always, our communities will celebrate safer year-end holidays due to the unfailing dedication of staff, from line to management, who hardly have the time to think of the things I have mentioned, but show up and perform admirably every day. For all, and especially the correctional staff in our institutions, best wishes for 2006.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C.

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