…who can write a 55-page position paper on the impacts of family breakdown and drug abuse on crime and incarceration rates in South Dakota, with 346 footnotes.
Back in September, Kevin Woster mentioned the article that Democratic U.S. House candidate Tim Bjorkman was working on for the South Dakota Law Review. I just had the pleasure of reading Bjorkman’s article, “A State in Shackles: The Effect of a Dysfunctional Childhood on Crime and Imprisonment” (Update 2017.12.25 07:30 CST: PDF just posted online!). It’s not a light, cheery holiday read, but it is a well-researched, scholarly yet relatable paper that shows him to be intellectually and compassionately head-and-shoulders above the woman he would replace in South Dakota’s lone House seat.
In 55 pages, 346 footnotes, and over 28,000 words, Bjorkman expands on observations he made right out of the gate at his campaign announcement in July about the problems that drag too many South Dakotans to the wrong side of the law. He essentially previewed the thesis of his paper in his remarks to the press at that Canistota event:
Bjorkman’s first response, on why he’s running for Congress, reveals a deeply humanitarian, service-oriented motivation. He served the public for years as a judge. The problems he saw from the bench—mental health, drug addiction, health care in general—affect not just the defendants who came before him but their families and especially their children. Bjorkman speaks of kids in “highly dysfunctional” homes living “lives of quiet desperation in the shadows of our culture.” Without hope and guidance, those kids “fall into the patterns of their parents and experience poor educational outcomes,” and “all too often they’ll fall into alcohol and marijuana use” before their teens. Those children and their parents “need a counselor more than they need a guard. They need treatment more than they need jail or prison.” Bjorkman says he can’t get those people the help they need from the bench; thus, he feels compelled to seek solutions as a Congressman [CAH, “Video: Bjorkman Talks Universal Health Care & Minimum Wage, Challenges Reporters,” Dakota Free Press, 2017.07.14].
Bjorkman’s paper is chock full of statistics about our state’s high incarceration rate (growing 30 times faster than our population over the last 40 years) and the dysfunctional background of most prisoners (two thirds with no high school diploma, 90% suffering from a substance disorder, over half the female prisoners survivors of child abuse). Bjorkman ties these dysfunctions to income inequality (low-income students with high test scores are less likely to finish college than high-income kids with low test scores), poverty, and breakdown of family structure (more pronounced among low-income Americans). These disadvantages sabotage children’s development in multiple ways, turning even their own neurobiology against them:
…A child subjected to frequent and prolonged adversity tends to develop what academicians call toxic stress…. Children in such settings build up higher levels of cortisol, a vital stress hormone. As part of the body’s fight or flight mechanism, the child’s adrenal glands release cortisol in response to fear or stress.
For most people, once the immediate crisis has abated, the body’s coritsol levels return to normal. In a child exposed to continual stress, however, cortisol remains stored in the body, rather than dissipating. Those elevated cortisol levels interfere with one’s learning, memory and ability to concentrate, and can lead to depression, mental illness, [and] a host of other long-term health problems.
Exposure to constant stress in the home can disrupt executive functions and disturb the ability to follow directions and address basic challenges…. Perhaps worst of all, the hormone buildup attacks the last refuge of a child living in a toxic environment: resiliency, the ability to overcome life’s adversities [footnote citations replaced with links; Timothy W. Bjorkman, “A State in Shackles: The Effect of a Dysfunctional Childhood on Crime and Imprisonment,” South Dakota Law Review, Vol. 62, 2017, p. 227].
This is Tim Bjorkman talking. Not a campaign aide, not a press person, not a staffer in charge of researching children’s health issues. This is Bjorkman, the candidate himself, explaining how poverty and family instability can make life so hard that children’s own brain chemistry conspires against them.
That cortisol disadvantage may explain this fact from Bjorkman’s paper: “Children from lower-income families are two to three times more likely than other children to suffer a mental disorder.”
Mental disorders, drug abuse, lack of treatment—these are the problems that Judge Bjorkman saw trapping many of the defendants in his courtroom in poverty, pain, and prison. Bjorkman believes in personal responsibility, but he says the justice system can’t just sit back and wait for those oppressed by such stressful backgrounds to bootstrap themselves back to complete functionality:
We must not lose track of the role that individual agency plays in life. It is, after all, in the individual’s ability to improve her circumstances by good choices and effort…. Yet, for the vast majority of those who enter prison,… the core skills and virtues that enable one to act responsibly in society were neither taught nor modeled in the home. The challenge the justice system confronts, then, is how to rehabilitate an offender who lacks the basic building blocks necessary to live a stable, law-abiding life [Bjorkman, 2017, p. 250].
Bjorkman says South Dakota’s 2013 criminal justice reform effort, Senate Bill 70, includes some “well-intentioned and well-crafted” reforms that “hold promise for reforming offenders’ lives,” like our new drug courts and more uniformity in handling probationers. However, 2013 SB 70 has failed to reduce South Dakota’s prison population (3,641 in 2012, 3,977 in November 2017—higher than the state projected 2013 SB 70 would achieve, but still lower than the projected population absent reform). More broadly, Bjorkman says 2013 SB 70 falls short in two key areas: providing “enhanced supervision and treatment” to offenders and tackling the “root of the problem: the profound, lifelong damage inflicted upon the children who grow up in dysfunctional families.”
Bjorkman does not write legislation here. He presents lists of policies to address each of these two main failings of our current criminal justice reform efforts. On rehabilitation, Bjorkman recommends the following policies:
- Hire more court services officers and intensive probation officers trained in helping offenders deal with mental health, addiction, employment, and housing issues.
- Establish “long-term, intensive treatment centers on each side of the state that will address both men’s and women’s addiction and underlying mental disorders” (he cites the Intensive Methamphetamine Treatment Unit at the Women’s Prison as a model).
- Adequately fund community mental health care facilities.
- Allow drug courts to exercise local control and take more offenders into their supervision (which the National Association of Drug Court Professionals says we should do).
- Develop a training program “modeled on the 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps and Job Corps” to help young probationers get diplomas and job skills.
- Prohibit bail practices that keep poor people in jail unnecessarily and easing up on the 2015 law that jails or yanks driver licenses from probationers who haven’t paid off their court debts.
- Reimburse counties for non-incarcerative programs like work release and alcohol and GPS monitoring.
Bjorkman says we need these policies but admits that such “end-of-line solutions… offer only limited promise because they do not reach the source of the problem.” He quotes Thomas More:
For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them [Thomas More, Utopia, 1516]
Bjorkman thus recommends the following early interventions to save more young people from the social and neurological traps his paper identifies:
- Increase staffing at the Department of Social Services to identify and address more cases of child neglect and abuse;
- Provide more parental coaching, home visits, and other support for poor and struggling families (footnote #316 mentions, “The U.S. lags behind all other advanced nations in providing support for parents of babies, including parental leave and workplace flexibility” [links mine]).
- Fund birth-to-three screening, mandatory preschool testing, and quality pre-K education (we are one of six states that don’t).
- “Empower teachers” to report child abuse “more readily and without fear of recrimination” and produce annual reports of academically at-risk children.
- Expand civics courses to teach “personal agency”, parenthood, and addiction avoidance.
- Expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to help low-income South Dakotans get timely health care.
- Provide “an enhanced family planning program that provides more accessible birth control for impoverished adult men and women” to, bluntly, lower the number of meth-addicted moms who get pregnant again “during the course of abuse and neglect proceedings, after losing Medicaid eligibility.”
Whatever legislative form these proposals may take, Bjorkman recommends lawmakers and enforcers form and execute those proposals with humility and compassion:
Those who pass laws and administer justice should do so with a dose of humility and compassion, for in nearly each case they were born into families far different than most who are sentenced to prison. None can really know what his or her own life would be like were the roles reversed [Bjorkman, 2017, p. 264].
Bjorkman’s 55 pages offer more humility, compassion, and thoughtful observation than a year’s worth of the sloganeering marketing materials our current Congressperson propagates. “A State in Shackles” isn’t a plea for votes or donations. It isn’t spin or focus-grouped talking points handed down from party leaders. It is an honest effort by an honest man to synthesize years of hard experience and study into policy solutions for practical public problems.
Put Tim Bjorkman’s problem-solving in my stocking any time. And next year, put Tim Bjorkman in Congress.