How to Keep Criminals Out of Jail

Newark’s mayor is using a performance-based approach to keeping his city safer by cutting its prison recidivism.
by | January 19, 2012 AT 5:00 PM

During his five years at the helm of New Jersey's largest city, Newark Mayor Cory Booker's work could provide fodder for months of columns on energetic, innovative and responsive government. For starters, he has overseen a stunning reduction in violent crime. In March 2010, Newark had its first month in over 44 years without a single murder.

More recently, Booker has turned his attention to another side of crime control: Newark's recidivism problem. Nationwide, nearly two-thirds of the 700,000 prisoners released annually are back in jail within three years. In New Jersey, more than half the offenders released from state prison are rearrested for a new crime within nine months.

Each year, 1,700 people return to Newark from state prison. Many more Newarkers—1,400 a month—are released from the local Essex County Correctional Facility. At any given time, more than 6,500 of the city's residents are under county or federal probation or state parole. While there is no citywide recidivism data, the state and national numbers don't paint an encouraging picture of what lies ahead for these individuals.

In 2008, the average annual cost of incarceration in New Jersey was $46,880. But that represents a fraction of the toll that recidivism exacts as a result of factors like family destabilization and economic disruption.

To address these challenges, in 2009 Newark established an Office of Reentry. Characteristically, Booker didn't just create another government bureaucracy. Instead, he teamed with New York City's Manhattan Institute to insure that best practices would be used to combat chronic problems.

The Office of Reentry's biggest program is the Newark Prisoner Reentry Initiative. The city was the first in the country to earn a grant for this kind of approach from the U.S. Department of Labor. The two-year, $2 million grant was leveraged with a match from philanthropic partners.

NPRI has provided more than 1,400 former prisoners with job development, job retention, case management and mentoring services. More than 900 have been placed in jobs at an average wage that tops $9 an hour, and the six-month retention rate is 70 percent. Most important, the one-year recidivism rate among program recipients is below the New Jersey state average.

The office takes a "work first" approach to recidivism, under the theory that finding a job fast and staying employed are the best ways to avoid a return to jail. The Office of Reentry develops and manages programs to help former prisoners find and keep jobs by overseeing a data-driven performance-management system of reentry-service contractors. The office regularly reviews process and outcome data, and providers are paid based on their success helping clients find and retain employment.

Booker understands that good social policy is also good for the bottom line. In less than three years, his integrated approach to battling recidivism has emerged as a model for efforts to confront countless other social ills in an environment of scarce resources.