According to a 2016 report issued by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a government agency that produces federal sentencing guidelines, nearly half of the federal offenders released in 2005 reoffended and returned to prison (“Recidivism Among Offenders: A Comprehensive Overview” 5). To put this into context, imagine if almost the entire population of Goleta (over 25,000 people) came home from prison and then, within 8 years, half were imprisoned again. The very system that is intended to reform prisoners is what needs reform itself. Recidivism is a result of the poor transition and reintegration of ex-convicts into society in addition to a lack of research into effective reentry programs, which in turn has led to surging prison populations and their accompanying costs. The antidote to recidivism is not to mindlessly expand prisons, but to invest in reentry services that will provide prisoners with critical and effective help before they are reintroduced to society.
To understand a major part of why incarceration rates are greater than ever, one must ask why prisoners commonly return to jail after release. This return is known as recidivism. Today the unsuccessful reentry into society is more problematic than ever. Though a great volume of ex-prisoners are released each year, many of them re-engage in criminal activity and return to jail (“Recidivism Among Offenders: A Comprehensive Overview” 5). High recidivism rates in the U.S. reflect the prison system’s failed mission to rehabilitate prisoners. Currently, understanding why recidivism occurs enables legislators to make informed decisions and changes regarding prison and sentencing policies. Specifically, research on the effectiveness of reentry programs, as well as “specific deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation” methods allow lawmakers to enact evidence-based reforms in order to reduce recidivism (“Recidivism Among Offenders: A Comprehensive Overview” 3). Legislators and prison administrators agree that recidivism is a costly problem, but continue to pour taxpayer dollars into prison expansion instead of moving forward with employing reentry services. Reentry efforts are put on hold until more research yields conclusive results.
In the article “Prisoner Reentry,” prison reform expert Peter Katel provides a brief history of prisoner reentry and recidivism in the U.S.: Before the 1970s, recidivism was not a prominent problem; crime rates were relatively low. Rising drug-related offences increased the crime rate dramatically during the 70s and 80s, prompting Congress to take action. Legislators dismissed or gave little support to rehabilitation methods, and instead turned to charging prisoners with harsher, longer sentences labeled “mandatory minimums” and “get tough” laws (1018). Katel goes on to explain that though an encouraging decrease in crime occurred in the 1990s, the cost of correctional facilities escalated and prisons expanded as jail populations swelled. Ignoring criticism and the troublesome economic effects of mass imprisonment, the U.S. continued to implement “get-tough” laws that emphasized tougher punishment and lengthened sentences, until the worry of financial strains became more of a concern than the waning violent crime rates. According to Katel, after 2003, “the nation’s prison and jail population had passed the 2 million mark ― the world’s highest”, and government’s attention shifted to the pressing need of prison reform (1020). Currently, high prison populations and costs result from rising recidivism rates, and convicts are flooding in and out of prisons at overwhelming rates. Though former President George W. Bush’s “Second Chance Act” in 2008 granted funds for the improvement of the U.S. prison system, support for reentry programs is still lacking and recidivism continues to be a great burden on government budgets (1014-1020). It is important to recognize the gravity, enormity, and societal expense of recidivism in the U.S. today.
One explanation for recidivism today is that not enough research is being conducted on effective rehabilitation. A possible solution to recidivism, called “reentry programs” has gained traction, but the need for governmental or philanthropic funds has prevented their ability to “reach their full potential in terms of implementation, sustainability, and outcomes” as told by prisoner reentry researcher Dr. Jennifer L. Bryan in the article “Envisioning a Broader Role for Philanthropy in Prison Reform” (575). When one searches “reentry programs in the US,” the top links beg for funding and support, urging the reader to realize the magnitude of recidivism by advertising the alarming but true numbers of returnees. These reentry programs aim to ease the transition of former prisoners into society through guidance and counseling. With the meager financial support offered toward reentry programs, they have been unable to both practice and evaluate their work, and results have varied in success. But, in order to shift the focus of funds from prison space towards reentry programs, “advocates must show hard data on what kinds of reentry programs lower recidivism most effectively” (Katel 1009). Evidence of solid statistics is challenging to produce. For example, one study “had no effect on housing, employment, substance abuse, or recidivism,” while another “increased employment […] but the effects were not long standing. However, the evaluation further revealed that CEO [Center for Employment Opportunities] significantly reduced recidivism” (576). Differing success rates for reentry programs has prevented them from being enthusiastically pursued. Instead, money is funneling into ever-expanding prisons and only trickling into reentry services.
Another cause of recidivism involves the obstacles ex-prisoners face as they return to their communities. Reintegration is complex, and without careful supervision and support, individuals are easily tempted to return to crime, and, subsequently, return to jail. The most critical and vulnerable time for an ex-prisoner is the “moment of release” as well as the following year (Lynch and Sabol qtd. in Phillips and Spencer 125). In other words, an offender is most likely to recidivate during the first year that he or she is released, as disclosed in the U.S. Sentencing Commission study (“Recidivism Among Offenders: A Comprehensive Overview” 16). The major problems former prisoners struggle with during this time are “jobs, housing, reconnecting with families, substance abuse, and health,” according to “The Challenges of Reentry from Prison to Society,” a journal article by Albright College psychologists Lindsay A. Phillips and W. Michelle Spencer (125). In order to find financial stability and housing after being released, ex-prisoners seek employment, often without prior work experience. Yet, jails do not generally provide inmates with vocational and/or financial education and training. Furthermore, many employers do not hire formerly convicted individuals. These “barriers” can be discouraging and inhibiting, and without help, former prisoners may fall back into criminal activity (Phillips and Spencer 126, 127). Because of the lack of supervision and pre-release preparation for reentry, formerly incarcerated persons are not equipped with the tools to cope, and may turn to illegal methods to make a living. “Million Dollar Blocks” are a clear example of this phenomenon (Clear and Cadora qtd. in Bryan et al. 575). Many ex-prisoners reside in neighborhoods that are destitute and have low education and employment rates. These communities are coined “Million Dollar Blocks” because of the tremendous expense of incarcerating the residents (Bryan et al. 575). The unfortunate solution to maintaining a living as well as respect in these communities is by selling drugs, which leads to rearrest and eventually recidivism. Formal work opportunities are scarce, and illegal work opportunities are plentiful, illustrating the paradox of the problem.
One consequence of recidivism is the towering prison populations in the U.S. and the resulting costs. Currently, the U.S prison population is about 2.2 million people, meaning our jails hold “25 percent of the world’s incarcerated” (Bryan et al. 572). The high probability of recidivism for those released has led to prison systems, the government, and taxpayers struggling to keep up with the mass expansion of prisons and the price tag that comes with it. Prisons consume a large portion of the national budget: “only Medicaid [health care] soaks up more state general fund money than prison systems” (Katel 1007). Due to budgetary and tax restrictions, the government is unwilling to invest in subsidies for reentry programs, which could eventually save more money. In 2009, the state of California provided a case study on the consequences of spending on bulging prisons without effective rehabilitation services. With extreme budget shortages, California continued to spend on expanding prisons rather than fund the “overwhelmed parole system” or reentry programs (Katel 1022). Prisons continue to grow and recidivism rates rise as California’s short term solutions do not “address the problem that caused the symptom” (Leno qtd. in Katel 1023). Recidivism is expensive and impacts not just prisoners, but the prison system, government, communities, and taxpayers. According to economics professor Mark A. Nadler, in his essay “Comprehensive Reentry Programs Will Reduce Recidivism,” the public pays for recidivism in two ways. First, the expense: Mass incarceration has led to a “lost national income” because of the number of potential workers imprisoned (Nadler). In addition, incarceration costs nationally increased by over 600 percent from 1982 to 2002, the probability of ex-prisoners to recidivate continued to rise (Nadler). Secondly, the safety and health of the communities and families of ex-prisoners are jeopardized, as illustrated in the previously referenced “Million Dollar Blocks” with high crime rates and low income (Bryan et al. 575). An increase in recidivism translates to an increase in crime and victims of crime.
Reentry programs, which aid inmates before, during, and after their release, are one way to decrease recidivism. By definition,“Reentry is the process of successfully transitioning an individual from incarceration back to the community” (Nadler). The goal of a transitional program is to take deliberate, careful measures in order to ensure that an individual does not recidivate once released from prison. This support is crucial, especially during the year of reintegration into society because the likelihood that an ex-prisoner will recidivate is higher. Some reentry programs in jails currently provide education, mentoring, and mental health care, but just 15 to 21% prepare inmates for future vocational or financial difficulties (Nadler). This statistic is significant, given that one of the major challenges ex-prisoners confront is difficulty getting hired due to little work experience. Unemployment inevitably leads to economic struggles, and precarious finances are what often cause an individual to return to crime (Nadler). In addition, most services begin later during an individual’s incarceration, but Nadler recommends initiating reentry programs immediately upon intake into local jails. In other words, “early intervention” that promotes job skills and financial literacy, is critical to prevent future criminal involvement (Stokes qtd. In Nadler).
To further illustrate this concept, early intervention is similar to preventative medicine, including prenatal care. Early interventions with young parents has a demonstrated payoff by reducing preventable health issues and avoidable emergencies. Similarly, incarcerated individuals benefit greatly from reentry programs that begin as soon as they are admitted. This approach is necessary to ensure the person has a chance of success outside of prison. The United States Federal Bureau of Prisons stands by these practices, and emphasizes pre-release services that start “the first day of incarceration” and “intensifies at least 18 months prior to release” (“Reentry Programs”). Using this methodology, training has a higher chance at being effective and, ultimately, reduces recidivism and jail or prison populations. But does this work for all types of prisoners?
The racial makeup of U.S. prisoners cannot be ignored. However, while specific ethnicities and race are disproportionately prominent in the demographic of prisons, there is not a strong correlation between ethnicity and returning to jail. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, “Rearrest rates for White, Black, and Hispanic offenders in CHC IV [Criminal History Category IV] are 69.7 percent, 77.6 percent, and 75.4 percent, respectively” (24). To clarify, the U.S. Sentencing Commission explains that an offender’s CHC represents their total criminal history points. A person with a higher CHC has committed more crimes, and therefore, is more likely to repeatedly return to prison. The U.S Sentencing Commission determined that factors such as criminal history, age, and education level are much stronger predictors of recidivism (19, 23, and 24). Recognizing the characteristics of a person who is likely to recidivate is a key step in administering effective reentry programs. For instance, a 30-year-old male with a serious criminal record (meaning a high CHC) and no high school diploma is at a high risk of recidivating. He would require more supervision, training, and support in order to lower the chance of reincarceration. Conversely, a 60-year-old female with a college degree is far less likely to recidivate (“Recidivism Among Offenders: A Comprehensive Overview” 27). Utilizing the existing statistics and studies on the demographic of recidivism can help guide decision makers to what amount and what type of support each prisoner needs before and after release.
Katel explains that policy makers are skeptical of reentry programs and are reluctant to put money into prison-reentry services that have had inconsistent results (1009). But if the majority of U.S. prisoners will eventually be released, excluding those with life sentences, they need support to minimize their rates of return (Katel 1009). Though more data on the criminology of transitional programs is much needed, Katel asserts that the short term solution of expanding prisons is more costly for state governments and taxpayers than funding reentry programs that “can cut long-term prison costs” (Katel 1009). While I recognize that there is a category of prisoners who “are hardened” and who participate in programs which may “have very little impact on them,” well over 50 percent of prisoners can potentially transition smoothly into society due to reentry services (Katel 1010). Moreover, “[the] thousands of new crimes each year could easily be averted through improved reentry efforts” (Bloomberg qtd. in Katel 1012). Critics’ attacks on reentry programs are undermined by the economics of the U.S. prison system’s current remedy―the shockingly high spending on prison space. Rather than following California’s footsteps by ignoring the problem, the implementation of transitional programs focused on work and financial skills is the answer. If one were to ask “Why spend to help criminals?”, I would respond “Would you, as a taxpayer, rather invest money in placing more people behind bars or on the services that will keep them crime-free and productive?” Changing the government’s spending target is necessary to reduce prison populations and recidivism rates.
Recidivism is more prevalent than ever, and the hope for promising reentry programs is shattered by the cost of swelling prisons. Former convicts are often carelessly released into their communities without adequate preparation. Therefore, overcrowding in prisons and the expense of expansion are rising as recidivism rates increase. Transforming the way our broken correctional system is funded and investing in reentry programs will help incarcerated individuals before they are released. Furthermore, new and existing research about the causes and the demographic of recidivism must be pursued and applied. There is little excuse for the extraordinary volume of those incarcerated in the U.S. today.
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