Reducing Recidivism: The Challenge of Successful Prisoner Re-Entry

Below is an article from the Huffington Post, posted on August 17th, 2011. The author Paul Heroux worked in a state prison and a county jail. He holds a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard. He can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com. How often do we hear about some ex-con committing an atrocious crime after release from prison? Too often is the right answer. But 'too often' can be 'not as much as we used to'.

The question is: how can we get to 'not as much as we used to'?

The notion that state prison systems are most often called some variant of a department of 'correction' is an aspiration. It is an aspiration that is, however, undermined by housing complications upon release, drug and medical issues after release, the lack of employment after release, and criminal records. But 'correction' is an aspiration we can realize. Here's how.

When inmates are sentenced and serve time behind bars they have a lot of time on their hands. This time can be used to improve the inmate, or not. While in prison, if available, inmates can participate in various recidivism reducing treatment programs. This include but are not limited to anger management, drug treatment, education and vocation training, sex offender relapse prevention, to name a few. Programs are necessary but not entirely sufficient.

After release from prison, life often becomes more difficult for ex-offenders that it was while locked-up. The three most pressing re-entry challenges are: a place to live/housing; drug treatment/medical care; and employment. A deficiency in any one of these three is a serious risk factor to relapse.

For example, when I was working for a jail system, there was an inmate who was homeless and every winter season would intentionally get arrested for a petty crime, would get locked up and then wouldn't (or couldn't) post bail just so he could have 'three hots' and a cot' (three hot meals and a bed to sleep in). This is wrong. And inmate fees won't solve this problem; we can't get blood from a stone.

One of the obstacles to reentry support for ex-offenders is opposition from the public, which translate into political will, that thinks that inmates are getting something that the rest of us law abiding citizens aren't getting. I've spoken with many people who say, 1) why should they get housing support, or job placement, or health care? 2) No one helps me with those things. 3) My son who just graduated from college needs a job; why should he be bumped in favor of someone who did a crime?

These are all legitimate and important concerns. A visceral reaction is that "we should just keep them locked-up" or "they screwed-up; too bad for them." But keeping them locked up becomes impossibly expensive, and in not helping them be successful upon release we are not helping our communities.

My response to each of these includes: 1) because the chances of them reoffending is higher without support in these areas and it is cheaper to give them support than to deal with the consequences of a crime, which may or may not involve a victim. 2) True, no one helps you with those things so you know how difficult it is; now add to that a criminal record, no family and friends supporting you, and laws that prohibit you from working and living in certain places. And 3) your college graduate son is very unlikely to be competing with an ex-con for a job so it is unlikely that your educated son will lose an opportunity over one afforded to an ex-con. Even if your child didn't go to college, your child is likely in a very different vocational place than an ex-offender.

Probation and parole, both used post-release to monitor inmates, are very important to help reducing recidivism. The idea that we release ex-cons from prison with all the re-entry challenges that they face without supervision is absurd. Some form of post-release supervision is important. This need not always be done by the government. Non-profits and religious organizations are a good place to turn to for help with this endeavor. In addition to probation and parole, on this idea, Day Reporting Centers can also be effective.

This idea of someone being an ex-con is just that: if someone is an ex-con that means they are a former convicted offender; this does not necessarily mean that they are currently an offender. This brings me to my next point: Second Chance Legislation. Everyone makes mistakes. Some mistakes are not serious; clearly some are. There is very good evidence that after being crime free for seven years, the probability of reoffending is about the same as someone who never offended in the first place. Depending on the initial crime, this might be grounds for someone to have a criminal record sealed or expunged. Why do that? Because a criminal record often acts as a continued sentence and makes it more difficult for ex-offenders to get housing, jobs and educational opportunities. I am fully aware of the importance of a criminal record as a public safety tool. My point is that after a certain time has passed and someone has not reoffended, a criminal record might not always be a public safety tool or in the best interest of justice.

Returning where we began, one very important thing to remember about reducing recidivism is that we can only reduce recidivism, not eliminate recidivism. There is no magic pill or program that will end recidivism. The most effective programs have been found to reduce recidivism by about 10 to 15 percent; on rare occasion, up to 20 percent. Treatment programs work, but this doesn't mean that everyone who participates in a program will be crime free upon release.

For example, assume the normal rate of recidivism is 50 percent. Now, we have 100 offenders participate in a prison treatment program that works. (Let's assume that it is evidence-based and it does reduce recidivism by a modest 10 percent.) Without the program, 50 people will reoffend. With the program, 45 people will re-offend; meaning 5 less people won't reoffend. If 5 people doesn't sound like a big deal, multiply that times the hundreds of thousands of offenders who might benefit from a treatment program. I think you get the picture.

Programs won't ever reduce recidivism to zero, but if we can reduce it and improve the lives of offenders and potential victims, we must. It is very important to remember that not everyone who participates in a program will be a success; there will be failures. When we hear of a failure story in the media, just remember that there are also successes. In this example, I am just talking about in-prison programs; add to this equation post-release support and we can further decrease recidivism.

On this point about assuming that programs work. We should not just assume that prison programs work, even when they are evidence-based. We must always be measuring our efforts to make sure that they are delivering the outcomes that we want. An outcome isn't people stepping up to the next phase of treatment, or serving increasing numbers of inmates, these are outputs. An outcomeis a change in behavior after release from prison. Measuring prison programs can be done, it must be done and it is something that can be done with relative ease and cost-efficiency.

The sooner society realizes that the better shape we release ex-offenders in and facilitate their successful re-entry into society, the safer all of us we will be.