The Price of Recidivism

A study from the Pew Center on the States finds that more than four in 10 offenders return to prison within three years. The report comes at a time when prison spending has spiked over the years.
by | April 14, 2011 AT 3:00 PM

It’s just not fair, is it?

Somebody commits a crime, goes to prison, then gets out of prison, only to go back faster than you can spell recidivism. And you’re paying for it. Big time.

According to the Pew Center on the States, more than four in 10 offenders return to prison within three years, and across the country, the rate of this revolving door has been fairly consistent – even though prison spending has spiked to $52 billion a year.

About 43 percent of prisoners released in 2004, and 45 percent of those released in 1999 were back behind bars within three years for committing a new crime or violating terms of their supervised release, according to state corrections data.

The Pew study -- one of the most comprehensive reports of its kind – comes at a crucial time with states locked up in budget bedlam. This data gives policymakers evidence that goes beyond anecdotal, and forces them to face the math. As they crunch numbers (or more accurately, argue about crunching numbers), they can ask critical questions: What’s working? What’s not working? Can a strategic shift in state corrections systems lead to financial freedom?

Despite the hyperbole, consider this: If the 41 states could reduce their recidivism rates by just 10 percent, the report shows that they could save more than $635 million combined in one year. With that same 10 percent reduction, California -- which of course is a portrait of budgetary prosperity – could pocket $233 million in one year.

With that said, the next question is the most important one: How? If throwing billions at the system isn’t working, and some programs to help prisoners re-enter society seem to be failing, how can states create programs that effectively keep inmates from going back?

For starters, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. As obvious as it is, it must be stated. Even in comparing recidivism across states, it’s difficult because of the numerous variables and unique conditions in each state. With that disclaimer out of the way, the Pew report highlights programs in Oregon, Michigan and Missouri.

Let’s look at Oregon, which recorded the lowest overall recidivism rate at 22.8 percent (41 states provided data for 2004). Oregon also had the steepest drop in recidivism from 1999 to 2004 of nearly 32 percent. The state takes a comprehensive approach that involves all levels of government to help bolster an inmate’s transition back into society for good:

In prison, Oregon inmates receive risk and needs assessments at intake, and targeted case management during incarceration, along with detailed transition planning that begins six months before release. In the community, probation officers use a sanctioning grid to impose swift, certain consequences for violations, creating consistency across offenders and from county to county. In both settings, offender programs are anchored in research and continually monitored and updated to optimize their effectiveness.

Instead of reincarceration, the report says, inmates face “an array of graduated sanctions in the community, including a short jail stay as needed to hold violators accountable.” In 2003, the Legislature passed a key measure which required any correctional program receiving state money to have evidence to back up its design and delivery.

“It’s pretty rare in Oregon for someone to be violated all the way back to prison,” Oregon Director of Corrections Max Williams, who co-authored the measure as a Republican state legislator, said in the report, “so we don’t have that revolving door that puts so much pressure on the prison population in other states.”

Of course, there are the skeptics, who would rather highlight the potential dangers of programs that help rehabilitate. "The assumption is that these are all choir boys at the prison and if we let them out, all will be well. And it doesn't work that way," New Hampshire prosecutor Jim Reams, president of the National District Attorneys Association, told the Associated Press. "We're getting exactly what we deserve when we do this -- we're getting more crime.”

Pessimism has its place, but this logic falls flat. An effective reintegration program that reduces recidivism means that there are less crimes, not more. And can anyone really say the current system is working like gangbusters? Not with issues of overcrowding, broken bail systems, privatization problems, etc. But removing the revolving door isn’t a job solely for corrections departments; it requires a helping hand from all arms of the law and beyond. It's only fair.