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April 28, 2011

"Recidivism’s High Cost and a Way to Cut It"

The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times editorial.  Here are excerpts:

Corrections costs for the states have quadrupled in the last 20 years — to about $52 billion a year nationally — making prison spending their second-fastest growing budget item after Medicaid.  To cut those costs, the states must first rethink parole and probation policies that drive hundreds of thousands of people back to prison every year, not for new crimes, but for technical violations that present no threat to public safety.

According to a new study by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Center on the States, 43 percent of prisoners nationally return to the lockup within three years.  The authors estimate that the 41 states covered in the study would reap a significant savings — $635 million in the first year — if they managed to cut their recidivism rates by just 10 percent....

The study, which looked at prisoner release data in 1999 and 2004, found recidivism rates varied widely. Some of the highest rates were in California (57.8 percent) and Missouri (54.4). New York is slightly under the national average (39.9 percent).  Oregon had the lowest: only 22.8 percent of inmates released in 2004 returned within three years. Crime has also declined significantly.

In the 1990s, the Oregon Legislature created a rating system that allows parole officers to employ a range of sanctions — short of a return to prison — for offenders whose infractions were minor and did not present a danger.  A parolee who fails a drug test can be sent to residential drug treatment or sentenced to house arrest or community service. In 2003, the state passed a law requiring all state-financed correctional treatment programs to use methods that have been shown to improve client compliance and to reduce recidivism.

Pressured by the dismal economy, many states, including New York, are looking for ways to cut recidivism.  The wise approach would be to adopt the programs that have proved so successful in Oregon.

April 28, 2011 at 08:57 AM | Permalink


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Treatment costs 10 times the cost of incarceration.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 28, 2011 9:09:40 AM

Having personally prosecuted hundreds of defendants who blamed their crimes against persons on drugs and/or alcohol it is a bit odd to claim there will be no public safety impact by reducing recidivism by redefining it not to include the "technical" violation of drug use while on parole. In California drug use is a crime, not a "technical" parole violation. This is nothing more than reducing cost by lowering enforcement of parole conditions. It will have, at best, an unknown impact on public safety. In California, CDCR is already implementing this reduced enforcement model as is my county on the probation side.

Posted by: David | Apr 28, 2011 10:14:17 AM

I also have trouble understanding why testing positive for illegal drugs is described as a mere “technical” violation.

It could still be true, though, that automatically returning them to prison is not cost effective. Many jurisdictions these days are reducing the penalties for drug possession offenses, or at least providing non-prison alternatives that previously didn’t exist. It may make sense in the parole context, as well.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Apr 28, 2011 11:36:37 AM

"Technical" may not be the right word, but the point is that it is not a new burglary, battery, theft, rape, etc. Putting someone in PRISON for drinking, smoking a joint, missing the bus to an appointment, or failing to send in copies of their utility bills in on time is simply silly.

Meanwhile, the view amongst most convicts is that it is nearly impossible to make it through parole and probation without being violated, no matter how hard you try or how good your intentions are. And the statistics show that they are right. They are absolutely right.

This is not about relaxing enforcement, it is about making enforcement (and compliance) mean something.

Posted by: James | Apr 28, 2011 6:29:08 PM

While I agree that making enforcement and compliance mean something is a laudable goal (James) and that it has the chance at being cost effective (Marc), the problem is that having rules that have no consequence for breaking them in no way fosters any respect for the authority that imposes those rules as a condition of release. That lack of respect for societies rules is sometimes what got them where they are in the first place.

The reality is that due to hard budget times, CDCR and many local probation offices have, now for a couple of years, implemented a policy of not violating probationers or parolees for many "technical" violations until they stack up a bunch. Since they are not returned to prison, despite having committed the violations, recidivism goes down. CDCR is now going to dump hundreds of short term prisoners on the counties if the Governor has his way and they have and have and will continue to do the same. We will see a reduction in recidivism only because there will not be enough money to adequately supervise most of them and therefore "technical" violations will not be discovered, or they will not be acted upon. The question still is, will this improve public safety? As I said, at best it is an unknown. But it will save CDCR money.

Posted by: David | Apr 29, 2011 12:49:21 AM

Hello Professor Berman:
It has been awhile since I have visited your blog, but we have incredible battles taking place in California which require my full attention, not to mention our 30 inmate lawyer filed legal actions. (I am not a lawyer, if you recall.)The prisoners aren't treated fairly in the courts, and these legal actions are so important for documenting facts for the future.

A prisoner is still dying every day, there is no place to go for help even in a life and death emergency. We have a new Attorney General whom we are hopeful will hold the abusive prison guards accountable for breaking laws. I wanted to make a brief comment about the recidivism rate in California. It is only high because we are the only state to re-arrest people for any minor reason whatsoever. Our law enforcement labor unions are corrupt and run the human bondage industry as if they are a mafia-like organization. The Gov took $1.8 mil from the CCPOA prison guard's union and right away gave them a fat contract and raises while sending 22,000 teachers pink slips. Most of the politicians from both parties take their checks and prisons are our largest industry.

There is a racket going on and people are hauled back in without a trial for the silliest reasons. The system rewards this type of behavior instead of holding anyone accountable for a complete lack of ethics. One man was re-arrested for eating a baked potato in the living room with a butter knife on a TV tray. No knives are allowed out of the kitchen you know...

We desperately need to change the harsh sentencing laws, but the people most affected are poor and uneducated. They don't realize that with 3 million of them that they could organize and vote everyone out of office who is taking payola from prison guards.

It's a mess.

B. Cayenne Bird

Posted by: B. Cayenne Bird | Apr 29, 2011 5:18:42 AM

There was a good response to the Times article today at the Criminal Lawyer, http://www.burneylawfirm.com/blog/2011/04/29/rethinking-recidivism. I can't agree with some of the stuff there, but it started out by pointing out why the Times proposal isn't that useful in real life, and then proposes how sentencing itself ought to be amended to reduce repeat prison.

Posted by: Jonas | Apr 29, 2011 5:01:25 PM

I agree with the comments of David,
HE have a lot of ideas about the topic.

Posted by: Patterson lawfirm | May 23, 2011 1:56:20 AM

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