SUNDRE, ALBERTA — Curbing high rates of recidivism requires a greater emphasis on meaningfully attempting to rehabilitate offenders, the local RCMP detachment’s commander says.
In his 24 years of service with the RCMP, Sgt. Trent Sperlie said he’s personally experienced and has become all too familiar with the prison system’s revolving door.
“Recidivism in my opinion, has been drastically increasing,” Sperlie told the Albertan on March 31 during an interview.
“I’ve seen people come out of the judicial system. They report to a probation officer, but other than that there’s nothing else to really support them."
The vast majority of property crimes in rural areas are committed by a core group of known offenders whose names police repeatedly see over and over, he said.
“The recidivism in these rural thefts, property thefts, the vehicle chopping, it is — from what I’ve seen over the last 24 years — it is definitely increasing,” he said. “We catch them, we put them in, they come back out, and they continue the offences.”
Citing a non-specific anecdote, he recalled an instance when a young male was arrested for vehicle theft.
“We asked him why he does it, and the big thing was he gets a rush out of it. It’s exciting for him,” said Sperlie. “He was caught in a stolen vehicle, there was a bail hearing for him, he was released, and by 9 o’clock that night, he had stolen another vehicle.”
However, there’s more than the thrill or adrenaline rush of stealing a car or other property motivating criminal behaviour, he said.
“There’s more at play here,” he said. “It’s greed, it’s easy money, it’s desperation from addictions and poor choices in life, as opposed to a desire just to steal.”
Recognizing that criminals should not be rewarded for committing offences, the sergeant nevertheless believes the focus should be more on rehabilitation as opposed to punitive measures if the objective is to successfully reform and reintegrate such individuals into productive members of society.
Reach people before they become addicts
“Effective rehabilitation is the only way to tackle this,” he said. “It’s like drug addiction — you can’t tackle drug addiction from the front end where they’re addicted already. You have to tackle that through getting to them before they become addicts.”
In other words, investing efforts in raising healthy, well-adjusted people is easier and more achievable than trying to repair them after the fact, he said.
“If there’s no effective rehabilitative process for these people … they’re not going to rehabilitate,” he said. “And the most effective way to rehabilitate, is get to them before they get to that stage.”
There’s no quick and easy solution, and this approach would be a long process that spans generations, he said.
“But if we get to these people before they become addicts, before they make these poor choices in life, and divert them from one path to another, you can prevent a lot of this,” he said.
“In the end, unless there’s a real program that is effective at reforming them, they’re just going to continue to repeat the crimes that they get arrested for.”
Releasing from prison a former convict who’s served their time without enough resources to support them and help ensure they don’t just fall right back into old habits won’t go far in reducing rates of recidivism.
“I think it’s the definition of insanity — you keep repeating the same thing over and over,” he said. “And I’m not trying to be critical of any part of the system here. Because even our role in all of this, there’s always room for improvement.”
When someone is released, they often have nothing to do and nowhere to live, he said.
“They do have a probation officer — and their plates are extremely full — that they have to report to. But in the end, there’s no reform there for them,” he said. “There’s no initiative for them to work towards something, and they just stumble right back into the same thing that they went to jail for in the first place.”
This outcome is unfortunately something he’s seen all too frequently.
“It is the common scenario. They do well for the first while, but eventually stumble and fall,” he said. “It’s no wonder recidivism is so high.”
A more humane approach
Asked whether there perhaps are lessons to be learned from the successful examples set by Scandinavian and Nordic nations who boast far lower rates of recidivism despite having facilities that would for people here almost resemble a resort, the sergeant said, “Absolutely. I think there’s lot to be learned from approaches that are showing success.”
Conversely, if a current method is not demonstrably proving it is having a positive effect, then the time has come to consider a different approach, “especially one that has some proven success. If there is examples out there, we should be looking to them to help curb this crime trend.”
With all of that being said, the sergeant also made unequivocally clear he was not making any excuses for criminal behaviour.
“Everybody has to be responsible for their own actions — they know what they’re doing is wrong,” he said.
And although lacking and in need of improvement, there are services and programs available to help those who are serious about turning their lives around, he added.
“If they did push harder, there are (options) for them to go and do for help. But it’s difficult,” he said. “I’m not excusing their actions or their behaviours. They have to take responsibility for that, but I think there’s definitely room for improvement.”
Of course change largely comes from within, and there are cases when offenders blame everything else under the sun but themselves, he said, adding that’s an attitude he’s seen more than he’d like.
“Sometimes, they feel entitled,” he said. “They commit crimes but they don’t take responsibility for their actions and it’s always somebody else’s fault and the system is at fault. And you can’t spin it that way either, because there has to be a recognition of what’s wrong, and there has to be a desire to change your future behaviour.”
Even so, he agreed that a more understanding and humane approach is the most effective method of reducing rates of recidivism.
People need purpose and hope
“I can boil it down to one simple aspect of being human, and that’s everybody needs purpose,” he said. “For the most part, these people don’t have purpose anymore. Their whole purpose now is survival.”
Someone who’s lost their sense of worth rapidly spirals downward, he said.
“People that don’t have purpose, quickly become lost,” he said. “People that are committing all these thefts — and again, not excusing their behaviour because they know what they’re doing is wrong — but I think a lot of them that I see, they lack purpose and they lack direction and a valid reason to exist.”
That is a key part of the complicated equation involved in trying to not only reform offenders but rehabilitate them as productive members of society, he said.
“That’s a deep, deep rut to get stuck in and it’s a really tough rut to pull somebody out of,” he said, referring to a person who has lost purpose and hope and succumbed to despair and addiction.
“But I think there’s probably better things that we could maybe do in trying to prevent people from falling into that rut.”