By the late Judge Dennis Challeen

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, the liberals were in charge of corrections, and a lot of money was spent on rehabilitation programs. Almost everything was tried, from teaching job skills, enhancing self-esteem, hugs and warm fuzzies and poetry to intense probation.

Finally a study concluded: Nothing works.

Along came the conservatives in the ’80s and ’90s who proudly proclaimed, “We told you so.”

Thus began the “lock them up and throw away the key” decades, resulting in over 2 million nonproductive imprisoned people whom we feed, clothe and care for medically.

Studies of these two eras concluded that both political approaches failed, each for different reasons.

Liberals failed because they tried to rescue criminals until they behaved, and conservatives tried to punish them till they behaved. Both philosophies overlooked a fundamental problem: Many young people in our society grow into adulthood without being taught simple character traits like what is right and wrong and how to be responsible for themselves and others. In other words, complete parental failure. Either the parents didn’t understand responsibility themselves and had nothing to pass on; or they never took the time or made the effort to teach their children.

Thus many children raise themselves in the streets.

During these years I was part of the criminal justice system and after dealing with chronic offenders, I would jot down my observations about their faulty reasoning and erroneous belief systems. I perceived that what we were officially doing was ineffectual and counterproductive, making offenders worse, not better.

In 1986 I wrote a book, Making It Right. In it, I highlighted my thoughts on why our criminal justice system yields unintended results:

    • We want them to be responsible, so we take away all responsibilities.
    • We want them to be part of our community, so we isolate them from our community.
    • We want them to be kind and loving people, so we subject them to hate and cruelty.
    • We want them to quit being the tough guy, so we put them where the tough guy is respected.
    • We want them to quit hanging around losers, so we put all the losers in the state under one roof.
    • We want them to be positive and constructive, so we degrade them and make them useless.
    • We want them to be trustworthy, so we put them where there is no trust.
    • We want them to be nonviolent, so we put them where there is violence all around them.
    • We want them to quit exploiting us, so we put them where they exploit each other.
    • We want them to think like normal people, so we put them where their fellow inmates think as they do. Reinforcing each other’s losing beliefs and lifestyles.
    • We want them to take control of their lives, own their problems and quit being parasites, so we make them totally dependent on us.

In our electronic age, words travel around the earth in an instant and Google reports where they land. These words apparently struck a common cord addressing a worldwide problem.

All civilized countries must lock up dangerous people for public safety, but for rehabilitation, prisons have proven to be counterproductive.

These words, written more than two decades ago in our river town courthouse and drifting like a message in a bottle to foreign shores, have taken on a life of their own.

They were read at a corrections conference in Papua, New Guinea, published in New Zealand, quoted by the Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, quoted by Sir Peter Bottomley in the British House of Commons, and cited in a court case in the Yukon, Canada.

They’ve been translated into Russian, Spanish, French, German and Japanese.

In the U.S., among hundreds of other citations, they’ve been quoted by the National Director of Drug Courts and by Gen. Barry McCaffrey, former U.S. Drug Czar.

Perhaps most touching to me, these words were found scratched on a cell wall inside a South Australian prison.

I’d like to believe this prose sheds some daylight into the swamp world of corrections in the 21st century.

For those offenders who will return someday to walk among us, we must reexamine the way we deal with them and do the opposite of what we have been doing.

In other words, teach them responsibility, what is right and wrong, employment skills, and self-reliance. And critically, the golden rule: Treat others as you would have them treat you.

But if we want criminals to change we must first reform ourselves.

More than a hundred years ago Mark Twain said:

“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know…
It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

NJC Hall of Honor faculty member Dennis Challeen served 35 years on the district court bench in Winona, Minnesota, and was credited with creating, in 1972, the concept of sentencing to community service. He passed away August 2, 2018, at the age of 82. He gave the College permission to republish any of his guest columns that appeared regularly in the Winona Daily News and the Winona Post. This column was originally published August 23, 2011.