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Prisons and the high cost of poor decisions | Robert E. Rubin | TEDxSanQuentin

Prisons and the high cost of poor decisions | Robert E. Rubin | TEDxSanQuentin

Translator: Delia Cohen
Reviewer: Ellen Maloney Before I get to my comments, I want to make one other comment
and that is this: This is a remarkable program;
it really and truly is. I’ve had an opportunity
in my life to be involved in a lot of activities of all sorts. And I think I can honestly say
that I have not heard a set of presentations,
a set of discussions, that were as thoughtful
as these have been. You deserve an enormous amount of credit. (Applause) It is also, for me,
a deep honor to be with you. A few months ago, I began
preparing for this talk, and we had a conference call
with the TEDx team from San Quentin. And the first thing that struck me
was how thoughtful people were and also by how immensely determined they were to take control
of their own lives despite the enormous obstacles
that were stacked against them. Before we had that conference call,
I was quite concerned. The question I had for myself was:
what did I have to offer you? On that conference call, I discovered
something very different, which is what you had to offer me. We talked for an hour and 20 minutes. I took five pages of notes,
which I still have. And ever since, I’ve been telling others that what they should do
is visit incarcerated people in locations in their neighborhood. And that way, they could have
the experience that I have had, and it is a remarkable experience. My hope is that this talk is your talk: That I can help others see
how much you have to offer them and see how much you have
to offer our society more broadly. I’d like to start by taking
a step back, a long step back. I took a course when I was
in college, Philosophy I, taught by a rumpled Greek
professor, Raphael Demos. Professor Demos used
to amble into his classroom. He would take the wastepaper basket,
turn it upside down, and use the bottom
of the wastepaper basket as his lectern. (Laughter) Then he would dissect the great thinkers
and philosophers of the ages. In lecture after lecture, his course
was designed to lead us to one broad conclusion: Nothing, absolutely nothing,
can be proven with absolute certainty. Every system of thought ultimately rests
on an assumption or a statement of faith. And if nothing can be
proven with certainty, then all decisions
are about probabilities. When I make a decision – this was true when I was in government; it was true when I was
in the private sector before that – I would first think
of the possible courses of action, then I would make
judgments as best I could about what I thought the odds
were of potential outcomes from each possible course of action, and finally, I’d weigh those
judgments against each other to reach the best conclusion. Very often I would take a yellow pad,
and I would go through these steps on a piece of paper in order
to have more rigor and precision. Having said that, ultimately
these are all judgments: judgments about probabilities
and judgments about odds. I had a skeptical mindset
before I took Professor Demos’s course. But his class, his course, gave me
an intellectual framework, which has guided my thinking
and my decision making ever since. To give you one example,
when I became Secretary of the Treasury, one of the first things we did was set up
an Office of Community Development to focus on poverty in inner cities
and in distressed rural areas. Shortly afterwards, I received a request
-not a request, a demand, an instruction- from a senior Senator on the Hill
to come to his office. He was concerned that I was focusing
on community development and not on what he called “my job”:
economic policy. I respectfully disagreed and told him
that poverty is a critical economic issue. I said that because I looked
at poverty from the perspective of economic probabilities. That is, I looked at
the probable economic benefits of measures to combat poverty,
the savings that could be had, and the productivity benefits
that could be obtained by our entire society by enabling
the poor to function more effectively in the American workforce. Then I compared the costs to the benefits. My conclusion was that the benefits
of combating poverty would far outweigh the costs, that the measures were good
and important public investments, and that combating poverty should be
part of the nation’s growth agenda. To get back to the conference call
we had a few months ago, or a couple of months ago
I guess it was, one of the most powerful takeaways
was when one of you said, and I’m paraphrasing, “When something happens,
when we are considering some action, we should not react,
but instead we should respond.” “Reacting,” he said
“is emotional and impulsive. Responding is waiting
and taking time to be thoughtful.” And that distinction,
between reacting and responding, matches with my earlier discussion, because if you respond thoughtfully what you’re doing is you’re taking
the time to think through the odds or the probabilities of different outcomes
from different courses of action. Reacting emotionally
is the opposite of that. One of you told me that 28 of you
discussed reacting versus responding and realized that together
you had already been incarcerated for 715 years for four minutes
and 26 seconds of reacting. You have put a tremendous
amount of thought, the same kind of thoughtfulness
you’ve evidenced here this morning, into understanding that distinction, and a tremendous amount of effort
into changing your approach. As you know, the laws of California
have changed recently. There was reference to more people
being paroled under Jerry Brown – Jerry Brown was my classmate
at law school, and I know Jerry well and I’ve talked
to Jerry about criminal justice reform – under Jerry Brown than any time before. A great many of you now
have the possibility of earlier release than seemed conceivable not long ago. And some of you have told me
that has changed the way you as individuals behave in prison, and some of the speakers this morning
have already referred to that. You are now focused on increasing
your chances of parole more quickly and on preparing for life after release. Preparing for the outside world
was not pressing before. Now, the outside world is a real prospect. Now you’re trying to learn the skills,
behaviors, attitudes, and approaches that can help make your lives productive
and meaningful outside these walls. You may not call that
probabilistic thinking, but that is exactly what you are doing. And there is a profound lesson
in our society, in all of this, about criminal justice reform. The prospect of release
has a more powerful effect on changing behavior
than the absence of that prospect. Now, society needs to catch up
with your decision making about criminal justice reform. We need to apply probabilistic thinking to the issues of our
criminal justice system. Not long after I left government,
I helped found a Washington think tank called The Hamilton Project. One of the first issues we looked at
was to apply an economic lens to the criminal justice system. It was apparent that we all needed
to learn what you, in this room, have known for so long: our country’s criminal
justice system is broken and it needs fundamental reform. America puts people in prison
for acts that other nations do not, mostly minor drug offenses. And we impose longer sentences
for most crimes. The rate of incarceration
in the United States is six time the average
of the large industrial nations. We need sufficient alternatives
to prison for low-level offenses, greatly reduced sentences
for the vast majority of offenses, and reform of parole
and probation policies that are currently far too rigid. There’s also far too little help
in terms of rehabilitation, although San Quentin is a model
for what can be done in that respect, and massively inadequate
help after release. Taking a probabilistic approach… (Applause) I’ll tell you something very interesting;
a few weeks ago, I was on a panel with some very, very distinguished people,
not me distinguished but the others were. We discussed the economy
and all kinds of things. The only subject that got applause
from that crowd was when I said, as part of my discussion
about the economy, that i thought a prime economic objective
should be criminal justice reform. There’s an awareness out there
of how badly broken our system is. The question is can we get our political
system to function effectively in response to this issue. Taking a probabilistic approach
to criminal justice reform involves, as I said a few moments ago,
looking at the costs and the benefits. We must continue to reform our system
for moral and social reasons, but we also need to analyze
its economic effects. When you do that,
it becomes patently clear that our current system
is failing, not just you, although it certainly is failing you, but all of us. Today’s global economy
is highly competitive. For our nation’s economic success,
we need to equip every American to be effective in the workforce
and to help drive productivity. Having people in prison
who should be in the workforce because of a lack of alternatives
to incarceration, overly long sentences, and rigid parole policies
harms the American economy for every single one of us. So, too, does failing to help prepare
those who are in prison for life after release. We all know that crime can have
terrible costs for its victims and for our economy more broadly. But providing appropriate incarceration
for those who commit crime shouldn’t deter us from addressing
the immense deficiencies of our current system. They are an injustice to so many,
and they’re a serious detriment to our nation’s economy. We all have a role
to play in solving this. Those of you who are incarcerated
need to keep doing what you are doing: working to make the best
decisions you can every day, taking advantage of the opportunities
that some of you have described here this morning to improve
your skills and your education, thinking about what kind of life
you want to have after release, and working to get yourself
ready for release. We, as a society, need to make sure
that others in prison around the country have access to programs
and opportunities to do the same, to take responsibility for
the next chapters in their lives, and to act on the probability
that they have a contribution to make, an important contribution
to make to our society, because they do, and you do. People outside prison need to learn, and one of you said this
on our conference call, that you are not just
the crime you committed. You are not just incarcerated men:
you are fathers and brothers and sons. In other prisons, there are mothers
and sisters and daughters. You are thinkers and pastors
and artists and teachers. We are all, every one of us, much more than the single worst thing
that we have ever done. (Applause) Oh, okay. That’s my last page; if I
didn’t have it, I’d have to make it up. Thank you. (Laughter) (Applause) If I didn’t find that, no,
then what I would have done, I would do my version of rap. (Laughter) (Applause) (Cheers) (Applause) With all due respect, I think
we’re better off with my last page, (Laughter) whatever it may be. (Laughter) Businesses, and I’m still
very much involved in business, businesses must learn the same lesson. What we’ve got to do is put aside,
and somebody mentioned this before, stereotypes and biases
against hiring former prisoners. (Applause) We absolutely and definitively
need to ban the box on job applications that asks if you’ve ever been in prison. (Applause) That is counterproductive to our economy and monstrously unfair
to the former inmates, because it disqualifies applicants
before they are even heard. And government has to act; there
has been some progress in some states. California is obviously an example,
but there is far, far more to do. And we need to come
together on what seems to be, at least hopefully is, an emerging
bipartisan consensus at the federal level to support reform of the federal
criminal justice system. What I’m really saying,
to use your framework, and a lot of these remarks as you can tell
came from the comments that I heard on that conference call and that I made
my five pages of notes about. To use your framework, what we really need to do
is we need to get to a situation where society responds to criminal
justice issues and not just reacts. Yes, crime hurts people;
it hurts people badly, and I don’t want for a moment
to diminish that., but as a society, we cannot base
our criminal justice system on these understandable reactions alone. Instead we need to look
at the probabilities, and we need to respond thoughtfully, just as the speakers here this morning
have spoken so thoughtfully, in a way that is likely to achieve
the best results for all of us. In or out of prison,
you are part of America; you are part of our society. (Applause) And America has a powerful
stake in your success, because it is part of ours. Thank you very much. (Applause) (Cheers)

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