Dr. Pat Werhane, DePaul University - Self-Worth and Recidivism

Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Pat Werhane of DePaul University reveals the psychological factors that contribute to recidivism in the American criminal justice system.

Patricia Werhane is the Wicklander Chair of Business Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and Executive Director of the Institute for Business and Professional Ethics at DePaul University. She has published and edited numerous articles and books and is the founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Business Ethics Quarterly. She holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University.

About Dr. Werhane

Dr. Pat Werhane - Self-Worth and Recidivism

Poverty is often identified with income and social status. Our research shows factors such as lack of family or legal support, social class, education, religion, culture and discrimination also play important roles. Together, at least in the United States, these elements trap many in seemingly inescapable situations. Thus, we see high recidivism rates in jails and prisons, partly because inmates cannot imagine how to change their lives and surroundings.

We studied and interviewed female inmates in Berrien County Jail in Benton Harbor, Michigan, one of the state's poorest communities. Many inmates were repeat offenders, some have been jailed more than 10 times, and many saw jail as a safe place where friends and relatives live as well. Worse than drug addiction, poverty, lack of family or legal support, social class and education, we found a poverty of self-esteem and self-worth, which we dubbed the "poverty of self." Many prisoners interviewed were fatalists, saw themselves as helpless victims of the system, and could not imagine how to break the cycle. They returned again and again, sometimes deliberately because other inmates were their support system and "family."

Berrien County commissioner Marletta Seats developed a new program, "Fresh Start," which helps inmates develop a strong sense of self, take responsibility for their incarceration and life choices, and find new ways to get out and stay out of jail. The program also is working to secure financial instruments to help provide jobs and independent living. To date, the program has helped almost 75 inmates stay out of jail, a little better than the 80% average recidivism in this jail. The program's success rate shows that the cycle of recidivism can be broken by addressing the key issues outlined in our research.

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