Prisoner Reentry Programs Need Improvement

September 8, 2009

I recently argued that our criminal justice system needs an overhaul. Our sentencing policies send far too many people to prison–and for too long. The exploding costs of maintaining such a system–totaling $44 billion in 2007–are eating away at state coffers.

Many states are reexamining their correction policies because of massive budget shortfalls. According to a recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice, at least 22 states have reduced their departments of corrections budgets.

Most of the savings will come from changes to sentencing policies and the early release of non-violent offenders. But unless reentry programs are improved, many of those released will likely be recommitted, which will undercut budget savings.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted studies of prisoners released in 1983 and 1994. Both found that a whopping two-thirds of those released were back in prison within three years. There’s no evidence to suggest that this trend has changed.

The major reasons for recidivism are straightforward. Many ex-offenders face significant barriers to quality employment and unstable or nonexistent housing arrangements. They also suffer from a greater than average prevalence of severe mental disorders, chronic infectious diseases and substance abuse–and, at the same time, lack of access to health care.

Many prisoner reentry programs do not effectively address these problems. For example, the Urban Institute reports that among those in prison in 1997, approximately 40% had not completed high school or attained a GED. Nevertheless, less than half received educational or vocational training.

Not surprisingly, it’s extraordinarily difficult for these individuals to obtain employment upon release. Last month, the unemployment rate for Americans who were 25 and older and lacked a high school diploma was 15.6%. On top of that, survey data indicate that many employers are averse to hiring people with criminal histories, even if they are qualified for the available job.

These barriers to employment reduce public safety because ex-offenders who acquire and maintain employment are less likely to engage in drug dealing, violent crime and property crime.

Clearly, we need to do a better job of preparing prisoners to constructively reenter society. Fortunately, Dr. Bruce Western of Harvard University has an intriguing proposal for a national prisoner reentry program.

The core element would be up to a year of transitional employment for parolees. Prisoners would be prepared for such employment by achieving functional levels of literacy, job skills and job readiness prior to release. Those not enrolled in education programs would work in in-prison industries making products that could be used by state and local governments.

Transitional employment would be combined with transitional housing and substance abuse treatment. Western also proposes the adoption of less punitive parole policies and the elimination of bans on federal benefits for people with criminal records.

He estimates the total cost of his proposal to be about $8.5 billion per year. States could cover some of the costs with money that currently goes toward housing prisoners. But Western would also have federal funds distributed to states that adopted specified reentry standards.

He argues that the social benefits of adopting his proposal, e.g., increased economic productivity and reduced crime, would total about $10.8 billion per year.

I’m not ready to say Dr. Western’s proposal is the right one. But it certainly grapples with many of the difficult issues associated with recidivism.


U.S. Prison System Needs Reform

August 23, 2009

The posting that follows is the first of what I hope will be many by my friend and fellow advocate Matt McKillop. Matt is one of the smartest and most thorough policy analysts I know. He’s also a top-notch strategist and a great partner. KB

For three decades, the U.S. has been engaged in a mass incarceration experiment. The resulting growth in the number of people in our prison system has been explosive and extraordinarily expensive for our states.

According to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States, about 613,000 adults were behind bars in 1982. By 2007, the number had grown to 2.3 million–an astounding 274% increase. The number of people on parole or probation has grown from about 1.6 million to 5.1 million during the same period.

So there are now around 7.4 million adults–1 out of every 31–under correctional control. This is more than the combined populations of Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego and Dallas. It’s also more than the populations of 38 states and the District of Columbia.

The explosion hasn’t been cheap. According to an earlier Pew report, state spending on corrections grew from $10.6 billion in 1987 to $44 billion in 2007. When adjusted for inflation, this is an increase of 127%.

Spending on corrections has crowded out support for programs in other important areas, e.g., education and transportation. For example, from 1987 to 2007, state spending on higher education grew by only 21% in inflation adjusted dollars.

We can’t attribute the expansion of our correctional system to general population growth. In 1982, the population was 232 million. It’s now estimated at about 307 million. That’s only a 32% increase.

Nor can we attribute it to a growth in serious crimes. Attorney General Eric Holder recently reported to the American Bar Association that the nation’s violent crime rate has dropped nearly 40% from its peak in 1991.

Instead, our corrections system has expanded because of policies that require prison time for more crimes–and longer sentences. One example is the “three strikes” policies that require courts to impose extended sentences for people who are convicted of crimes on three or more occasions.

It has also become increasingly common for states to imprison people who commit “technical violations” of their parole or probation, e.g. missing a scheduled meeting.

So are we taxpayers getting our money’s worth in increased public safety? The evidence suggests we are not. This is due to a variety of complicated reasons. But most of them boil down to the fact that we’re imprisoning too many low-level, non-violent criminals. The costs of imprisoning these criminals are far greater than the social costs of their crimes. And we’re learning that locking up low-level drug dealers just opens slots for new dealers to step in.

Because of all this and the devastating budget crises that states are facing, people as politically diverse as Newt Gingrich and Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) are calling for changes. And, in fact, many states are seeking less costly alternatives to prison.

There’s also been action at the federal level. Most promising is the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, introduced by Senator Jim Webb (D-VA). This bill would establish a blue-ribbon commission to conduct a top-to-bottom review of our entire criminal justice system and make recommendations for reform.

This is exactly the type of reassessment that the problem demands. So it’s encouraging that the bill has a bipartisan group of influential co-sponsors. As the New York Times recently editorialized, Congress should ensure that the commission is up and running as soon as possible.