John M. Paitakes, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Seton Hall University
Special to the Hellenic News of America
The following represent a qualitative review of the criminogenic characteristics of 7,000 male inmates based upon personal interviews with those incarcerated in the New Jersey Adult Correctional system. Male inmates represent the vast majority of incarcerated personnel. Therefore, the following is representative of that population.
- Minority Representation: Over 50% of the incarcerated population in New Jersey is comprised of Black Americans. This is noteworthy inasmuch as they represent about 14% of the total population. There are a number of reasons this occurs. To be in prison they must have committed a serious offense and/or had a lengthy prior criminal history. Other factors may be profiling and discrimination. Was the individual represented by private counsel or the public defender? The majority of incarcerated tend to be represented by the public defender. They usually have large caseloads as many of the offenders are from the lower economic strata and cannot afford private counsel and their fee. Private attorneys can pick and chose their clients and set their own fees as compared to the public defender, a government employee. The private attorney may have additional investigative and administrative employees to assist in providing a comprehensive defense. It should be noted that the majority of defendants have taken a plea bargain in lieu of trial by jury. Much of this is due to court backlogs and attorney recommendations.
- Low Educational Level: Approximately 80% of the incarcerated population never graduated High School or received their GED (graduate education degree). They may have dropped out of school for a variety of reasons. Their peer group may have been a major influence on their dropping out. If many of their peers had dropped out or were expelled that may have influenced their decision. A lack of positive parenting skills may have also affected their decision. A learning disability can lead to a student feeling inadequate and therefore, dropping out. The monetary incentive of making a significant amount of money from some other illegal means, i.e. drugs, robbery, etc. can also be an incentive to withdraw from school. Most dropouts from formal education do not possess marketable skills and therefore, are susceptible to some illegal pursuits to make money.
- Fragmented Family Structure: A vast number of repeat offenders, unfortunately, have not been reared by what we refer to as an “intact” traditional family structure-a mother and father. Having both parents, in most cases, can provide meaningful guidance and supervision. In a significant number of cases, the biological parents were not married and had no significant presence in the upbringing of the child. The opportunity for this offspring to make a meaningful adjustment would be marginalized. If they had the benefit of a positive influence by a grandparent other loving, caring relative, the chances of a crime-free existence is increased. In a significant number of cases, offenders had several children (in one case 15!) with seven different women not married to any of them. The chances of a meaningful crime-free existence for these children are minimal. The chance of gravitating toward gang affiliation is greatly enhanced as they may be seeking love and security which the gang promises.
- Lower Income Level: Over 50% of the incarcerated population was from the lower-income strata. The fact that they had limited income may have resulted in having to reside in lower-income housing areas. There seemed to be a higher likelihood that these were also higher crime areas. Lower-income may also result in having less money to secure and pay for health care insurance. This can result in not attending to medical issues due to lack of funds and more health problems than those with health care insurance and more financially secure. This also seems to correlate with healthier food choices. Lower-income individuals may be more apt to not pursue further educational programs, thereby securing less well-paying jobs which may require those with improved marketing skills. Stealing, robbery, selling drugs are means of quickly securing more money which is an alternative that many may turn to.
- Prior Delinquent and Criminal Behavior: It should also be noted that prior delinquent and criminal behavior seemed to be more prevalent in repeat offenders. In fact, it also seemed to be like a “badge of honor” or a “right of passage” to many. In addition, in a substantial number of cases family members and relatives had some criminal behavior and even served time in jail or prison. This poor behavior by many was an accepted mode of behavior as many of their peers and even family members had exhibited similar behaviors.
- Lack of positive peers: Generally, repeat offenders tend to associate with persons they have something in common with. Usually, these people have similar backgrounds, cultural standards, and perhaps even criminal records. “People-Places & Things,” tell us a lot about a person. Who are the people one associates with, the places they go, and the things they do. The neighborhood and housing one resides in affects to some degree the persons one may associates with. If the individual is a high school dropout, then they are more susceptible to gang affiliation and crime. Many repeat offenders have not completed high school and associate with other dropouts placing them in this high-risk category. Unless there is strong parental supervision and mentoring, which is not usually the case with these offenders, they are in this high-risk group.
- Lack of appropriate value & moral system: This becomes evident when a significant number of cases of repeat offenders are reviewed; inmates committing aggravated assault on others, and even family members because they were “insulted”. Case in point: on Thanksgiving day an individual was hosting a dinner for family and friends. He had to run out to the store to get some alcohol and asked attendees to wait till he got back before eating. He did not return quickly enough and many of the attendees began eating. When the host returned he got into an angry dispute with one of the attendees who was a good friend of his. He picked up a knife and stabbed him. He subsequently was charged with aggravated assault and received a 5-year prison term. How about the case of a father sexually assaulting his ten-year-old daughter? He and his wife were getting a divorce and the father was distraught over this and admitted committing the act. What about the offender who had fifteen children with seven different women not married to any of them? These are some examples of poor moral and inappropriate value systems of some of the repeat offenders.
- Physical and Emotional Health: In keeping in mind that over 50% of the incarcerated repeat offenders came from lower-income and were either unemployed or underemployed, they probably did not have adequate health plans and insurance. In many cases, perhaps the first time they had a physical examination was when they were initially incarcerated. It also may be the first time they saw a dentist! This neglect can have long-term negative effects on not only physical ailments but also mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Emotionally, dependent on their family environment, they may not have the love and caring environment for positive development.
- Lack of positive role models and mentors: In a significant number of cases, most of those repeat offenders interviewed did not possess the benefit of a positive role model or mentor. As previously noted, in the majority of cases their biological parents were not legally married and may not even been living together. In fact, in a number of cases, one of their parents was also incarcerated during part of their upbringing. If the individual offender was fortunate enough to have a significant other i.e.; grandparent, aunt, uncle or other responsible adults, this could have made a marketable difference in their development and adjustment.
- Physical and Sexual Abuse: A significant number of inmates have been abused physically and even sexually prior to their incarceration. It is difficult to get an accurate number of incidents of this nature as they tend to be under-reported by victims. Victims are sometimes embarrassed or fearful of some type of retaliation if they report these kinds of crimes. Physical abuse by a parent or guardian could have been meted out by them as perhaps their parent had done to them. It could have been as excessive corporal punishment to get compliance to their demands. The parent or guardian may have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Sexual abuses may have taken place also as a result of similar incidents that the parent had undergone themselves. Victims of abuse sometimes become abusers.
The following are recommendations for consideration to address criminogenic characteristics
Low Education Levels – To address the low educational level of many inmates the following sources for volunteering to tutor may be considered: Retired teachers; college students as an internship for credit; senior citizens seeking volunteer work; retired social workers to name a few.
Fragmented Family Structures – For youthful offenders initially becoming involved in the criminal justice system: the following may be considered to assist these individuals in avoiding a repeat offender status: Big Brothers & Big Sisters programs; volunteers in probation and parole sex offenders who have made positive and successful adjustment, senior citizens with appropriate vetting and training.
Employment Preparation – Programs should be instituted in the early stages of incarceration to prepare the offender for meaningful employment upon release and return to society. Certifications offered for particular careers while incarcerated are important. Practical work assignments while incarcerated, i.e. food services, maintenance, computer science-related training as examples; college-level courses offered for further education. Budgets at respective institutions are always critical to address these issues.
Lack of Appropriate Value and Moral System – Youthful offenders become offenders on many occasions being influenced by parental examples. Unfortunately, many offenders grow up in single-parent families or in family units where their biological parent was not married or even available. Therefore, we must seek our assistance from the religious community, school social workers, and significant positive family members to assist in the client’s value and moral decision-making.
Physical and Emotional Health – we must pursue resources financially and assist with providing medical and mental health services. This demands more funding and special grants from local, state, and federal agencies. Lobbying for these services is of paramount importance. We can also solicit volunteers from professionals in medical, psychological, and social work professions. It should be noted that a number of mental health and psychological professions require completing volunteering their services to qualify for their annual recertification.
Physical and Sexual Abuse – Unfortunately a significant number of repeat offenders have been physically and sexually abused. This must be detected as early as possible to prevent further negative repercussions. Primary agencies such as school personnel, youth service agencies, probation officers, and police officers are some of the agencies that will detect this abuse and therefore, refer to the Division of Youth and service agencies for investigation and assistance.
Dr. Paitakes has worked as a Probation Officer for over twenty-five years and served on the New Jersey State Parole Board for almost ten years where he has interviewed over 7,000 inmates. He has taught criminal justice courses for over fifty years at numerous colleges and universities. In addition, he has written numerous articles on a diverse number of criminal justice issues and participated as a criminal justice expert on EBRU television, several podcasts, radio, and Fox News television.
*Dr. Paitakes continues to work in criminal justice as an Adjunct Professor at Rider University, a criminal justice consultant, and an Alternate Member of the New Jersey State Parole Board. He is the author of “50 Years Working in Criminal Justice” available at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
He can be reached at: [email protected]