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.