Column: Society divided on what to do with our criminals

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 21, 2001

Juan Ortiz has been found guilty for his attack on two correctional officers last year in Albert Lea.

Saturday, July 21, 2001

Juan Ortiz has been found guilty for his attack on two correctional officers last year in Albert Lea. He will be going away for a long time – he’ll be out of this town, he’ll be out of sight, and he’ll be out of mind. He’ll be living his days in a prison somewhere.

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But someday, most likely, a door someplace will slide open, and out will walk Ortiz, into a world that hasn’t treated him too well, and to which he has returned the favor.

What will he do? Will he end up behind bars again? Will he become a useful member of society? Will he beat the odds and turn himself around?

I don’t know Ortiz; all I know of him is what I could see from two days of looking at the back of his head in a courtroom last week, and what I heard when the prosecuting attorney played his taped confession for the jury.

Ortiz was convicted this week of attacking jailers while he was a resident at the Freeborn County Jail last summer.

From what he was convicted of doing, I know he is capable of terrible violence. From what he is wanted for doing in Maryland – rape, child abuse, assault – I know he can be even worse.

But from what I heard on the confession, he is either a good actor when he gets into trouble or he is a person who is capable of feeling bad for his actions. During the confession, he cried. He said he was sorry. He pleaded to not be returned to Maryland, where he thinks he’ll be killed. It may well have been a desperate effort to cover himself for what he had done – after all, he also apparently lied during that confession. But I believe there was at least a hint of sincerity.

There are thousands of people like Ortiz in this country and in this world. It seems to me that our society doesn’t quite know what to do with them; indeed, it’s been a conundrum since the start of time. We’ve executed them, made public spectacles of them, locked them away, tried to reform them, gone easy on them. None of it has erased crime or evil from the world, and it probably never will.

But what, exactly, is our goal? Are we trying to punish people for what they’ve done? Are we trying to change them – to make them behave as we want them to? Or do we just want them out of the way, either dead or locked away where they can’t hurt anybody else?

I’ve heard it said that our corrections system’s goal is to rehabilitate people. Is that really the case? If so, it doesn’t seem to work very well. Can a few years in jail or on probation really do much to change deep-rooted problems relating to others or conquering bad habits?

A good share of people seem to think that corrections is about punishment. This, in theory, would change people through negative reinforcement. When they do something bad, they get punished, until they learn they will face consequences for breaking the rules. But we can’t catch them every time; in fact, we probably catch them very little of the time. They learn that they can take a chance and will stand pretty good odds of getting away with it. Psychologists will tell you that behaviors which are rewarded sometimes and punished other times are the hardest to stamp out; somewhere in the mind, even if the reward comes only once in ten tries, there’s always the thought that &uot;Hey, I have a chance of getting away with this.&uot;

Or is punishment about justice? Certainly, we fell better when the perpetrator of a crime becomes a victim himself. It’s an eye for an eye. Is some cosmic scale balanced when a bad deed is punished?

To me, it seems the way it really ends up is that we just don’t want to deal with people who commit crimes, so we put them someplace where we don’t have to. That way, we’re safe from them, at least for a while.

But we end up dealing with them again. We either deal with them by paying for more jails and prisons, or by letting them out and crossing our fingers that they don’t offend again.

Is there a chance we can change people? Reform criminals? Maybe. If that remorse in Juan Ortiz’s confession was real, it provides some hope that it’s possible. All but the most depraved at least have some understanding of how they hurt others.

I just don’t know if we’re close to figuring out how it’s done.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays.