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Monday, March 21, 2016

What If Our Correctional System Could Operate More Like Our Healthcare System?

Rockingham/Harrisonburg Regional Jail
Augusta Health, main entrance
My oldest living sister was taken by ambulance to Augusta Health last week with extreme fatigue and difficulty breathing. After being treated in the Emergency Room she was assigned to the Intensive Care Unit, where she was put on oxygen and given round the clock attention. Within a day she was found to have a 90% blockage in one of the arteries to her heart, resulting in her having a stint installed.

From the first we had conversations with her medical staff as to what would be the best treatment for her condition, with the goal being to get her returned home and being able to resume a normal, productive life as soon as possible. Currently she is assigned to spend 7-8 days in the skilled nursing department at the hospital, where she will have various therapies to help her regain her heart and body strength to return home sometime next week, where she will be provided needed assistance from others in her family and church family.

As always, I was impressed with the professional staff and state of the art facilities at Augusta Health, providing treatment based on the most updated medical research available.

By contrast, our nation's "correctional" facilities are operated in pretty much the same medieval manner they were centuries ago, when we first came up with the idea of locking people in steel cages in order to have them learn penitence and to change their ways (hence the origin of the term "penitentiary").

Last week a friend told me about how one of his neighbors had just been returned to jail for numerous technical and traffic violations resulting from his seeming inability to understand and/or remember what is necessary to keep himself compliant with the law. In this case he had understood the clerk of the court to say he would be OK if he paid $50 a month on his past fines, and he apparently didn't understand that his license remained suspended in the meantime.

I'm certainly not defending his lifestyle patterns, even though he is one of a most generous, caring individuals one can find anywhere, innocent and naive to a fault. As a part of his naivete, he is terrible at keeping up with what he experiences as a complex, sticky web of laws and probation rules that keep getting him in trouble with the court. 

Meanwhile, you and I are left with the bill for his incarceration (well over $2000 a month), and are denied the benefit of his being a contributing and tax paying member of our community until he finally has his case heard over a month from now. 

Our criminal justice system all too frequently resorts to sentencing people to some arbitrarily determined amount of time in a correctional "hospital" such as a jail or prison. Invariably these facilities are understaffed and overcrowded and with few opportunities for remedial experiences that actually "correct", and often resulting in inmates losing their jobs due to having to be away from work for weeks on end while awaiting trial. Whether the offense is murder, burglary, embezzlement, the use of illegal drugs, or any number of failures to pay fines, court costs or child support, the eventual "remedy" tends to be the same, with varying amounts of time spent behind bars, idle and without any significant "treatment".

Imagine our chagrin if the following occurred in our healthcare system:

Tooth decay due to lack of good dental hygiene? Two days in an antiquated hospital.
Recurring headaches due to hangovers? More days in the same kind of hospital.
Digestive problems due to poor eating habits? Even more days in the hospital.
Lung cancer due to smoking? A life sentence in the hospital, etc.

You get my point. Any one-remedy-fits-all mindset would obviously result in a very expensive, overburdened and inefficient healthcare system. 

We can create a criminal justice system that is far superior to that, based on best practices proven to help offenders return to their communities in the shortest time possible as rehabilitated, productive citizens.
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