Now they bout to free me up, whatchu think I'm gon' be, what?
Rehabilitated, man I still feel hatred
The debate on the failure of the rehabilitative function of prisons and whether sentencing should take into account the rehabilitation of criminals (or if prisons should even be tasked with rehabilitation) is long-standing and ongoing. Nonetheless, public perception is precisely that prison should rehabilitate or at least that upon emerging from prison, a former inmate should be rehabilitated. In Jay’s lyrics, this is foregrounded, as is the other long-standing problem of differential sentencing, and the terrible impact it had in exacerbating recidivism rates (caused by the generational resentment) of black men in America (crack dealers often being black, the laws were effectively racial; a situation improved in 2010 by The Fair Sentencing Act). Before the Fair Sentencing Act,
…under a 1986 law, 50 grams of crack (the weight of a candy bar) led to a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years — the same sentence that applied to 5,000 grams of powdered cocaine (enough to fill a brief case). A street dealer of crack cocaine often got a longer sentence than the major trafficker who sold the powdered cocaine made into crack.
In the article, “The Debate on Rehabilitating Criminals: Is It True that Nothing Works?”, it is noted that,
On January 18, 1989, the abandonment of rehabilitation in corrections was confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Mistretta v. United States, the Court upheld federal “sentencing guidelines” which remove rehabilitation from serious consideration when sentencing offenders. Defendants will henceforth be sentenced strictly for the crime, with no recognition given to such factors as amenability to treatment, personal and family history, previous efforts to rehabilitate oneself, or possible alternatives to prison. The Court outlined the history of the debate: “Rehabilitation as a sound penological theory came to be questioned and, in any event, was regarded by some as an unattainable goal for most cases.” The Court cited a Senate Report which “referred to the ‘outmoded rehabilitation model’ for federal criminal sentencing, and recognized that the efforts of the criminal justice system to achieve rehabilitation of offenders had failed.”
Jay is using his trademark gifts of lyrical compression and literary concision to distill the essence of these vitally important issues, examining through the lense of his personal history (“the streets gave me all I write in this song”). It is a debate that is well discussed in Charles R. Tittle’s 1974 paper on “Prisons and Rehabilitation”, where he posits that,
The only way to in which prisons can escape the onus of failure [to rehabilitate] is by abandoning the rehabilitative mission.
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