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The New York Sun


One Of the Bad Seeds

July 12, 2007

By John H. McWhorter

One suspects that there is not much to be done for people like Dexter Bostic—yet, ironically, he sheds light on what kinds of social policies work in turning the lives around of so many other people like him.

Bostic is the two-time ex-con on parole who is thought, with Robert Ellis, to have gravely wounded police officer, Russel Timoshenko, on Monday, when Mr. Timoshenko and his partner, Herman Yan, stopped the BMW Bostic was driving because the license plate did not match the car.

Bostic had gone to prison at 16 for robbery and rape, was released after nine years, and less than a year later held a couple up at gunpoint, upon which he returned to prison for another three years. He was to be on parole until 2009. Now, at large, if he is apprehended he will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

Yet Bostic does not fit into the ready-made narrative that many consider the last word on criminal justice and rehabilitation. For one, he was no statistic caught up in the War on Drugs—he went in for old fashioned stick 'em ups as well as sexual assault. Bostic, then, cannot be recruited as evidence of a racist system that penalizes possession of crack more severely than of powder, is waging a "war on black men," or any other claims along that line.

Rather, the news from the Bostic case is about the programs that were available to him, despite them not working for him as an individual.

What stuck out the most for people about the shooting death of Sean Bell in Queens last November, for example, is that Bell was about to marry the mother of his two children. Well, what should most stick out about Dexter Bostic, as an ex-con, is that he had a job.

He was working at a car dealership, which does not fit the idea that ex-cons are driven almost inevitably into committing crimes and going back to prison because no one will hire them. That idea has become a kind of street myth, passed on in the ivory tower as well as on the corners, but luckily, a myth it is.

Organizations in cities across the nation that are devoted to getting ex-cons on their feet have connections with companies willing to hire ex-cons. Companies aren't exactly putting ads in the paper advertising for ex-cons to apply, it is true. But ex-cons can get jobs. Our task—i.e., what could be seen as truly progressive thought—is to make ex-cons aware of this, not perpetuate the canard that ex-cons are all but barred from honest work.

Another thing slightly counterintuitive in Bostic is that he was under what was apparently competent parole supervision. His parole officer seems to have been on point, having last visited him just days before Monday. He was not, instead, "maxed out," i.e., he had not served his entire period of supervision within prison walls and then been left to fend for himself in the real world with no surveillance or help.

This is an increasingly common problem for ex-cons, and it matters. Solid parole programs make a big difference in how likely an ex-con is to go the wrong way again. For example, of the 10,000 who participated in New Jersey's Intensive Supervision Program between 1983 and 2002, fewer than 8% went back to prison.

There are always bad seeds. Bostic, stealing one of the car dealership's vehicles, out after his curfew and packing heat, is clearly a sociopath, of the sort who rarely settles into following the straight and narrow until middle age starts catching up with him, if even then. However, the system was doing its job in trying to help him, and in most cases, such efforts work. Bostic must not be seen as evidence that such programs are not worth the effort.

The problem is how unevenly they are applied. Just as many consider it a priority to ensure that all Americans have health care, in an ideal America all ex-cons would be provided with comprehensive re-entry assistance starting from within prison walls.

There will always be a few Dexter Bostics. But there could be many fewer ex-cons who are perfectly normal people who fell in with the wrong crowd, and just need some help to not slip back into making the same mistakes.

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