« "Sentencing Reform Starts to Pay Off" | Main | To some Justices' chagrin, SCOTUS refuses to delay latest California prison release order »

August 2, 2013

Could prison perhaps be helping to cause serious recidivism in Delaware?

The question in the title of this post is the first reaction I had upon seeing this lengthy local story, headlined "Study: 8 in 10 released inmates return to Del. prisons." Here are the details:

Nearly eight in 10 Delaware inmates sentenced to more than a year in prison are arrested again for a serious offense within three years of their release, according to a first-of-its-kind state study.  The 27-page report, Recidivism in Delaware, also found that 71% of released prisoners are convicted of a serious crime within three years, and that 68% return to prison for at least one day....

Conducted by the Delaware Criminal Justice Council, the report was a necessary initial step to evaluating the effectiveness of the state's justice system, including the programs available to prisoners while behind bars or after being freed. "These are people who have been sentenced to a year or more in prison, the more serious offenders, and we expected them to be the highest recidivists," said Drewry N. Fennell, the criminal justice council's executive director.

"It really gives us a baseline against which to measure our successes in the future. And our failures. And to know whether we are spending our time and money well in ways that really do enhance communities that people are going back to, as well as enhancing the lives of people who have been incarcerated. We don't want to invest in things that don't do that."

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said the information should be used to develop better strategies to prevent crime and reduce the number of criminals who re-offend. "Too many people released from our prisons go on to commit more crimes. We need to change that," he said in a statement.

Delaware officials haven't studied how effective the corrections system is in keeping offenders from returning to prison since 2000, and that study was limited to a one-time snapshot of prisoners returning after their release in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Delaware Public Defender Brendan O'Neill, whose taxpayer-funded agency represents about 85% of the state's defendants, said he was surprised the rates included in the new report are so high. "It raises more questions than it answers now," O'Neill said, while applauding officials for finally conducting the long-needed study....

Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden said in a written statement that the report "highlights an alarming rate of recidivism that needs to be addressed by the criminal justice system." Biden said its findings underscore problems his office has been trying to address, such as prison sentences that don't "adequately reflect the seriousness of the crime" or deter future crimes, and the failure of judges to order pre-sentence reports for most serious felony cases.

Delaware embarked on the study on the orders of the General Assembly, which passed a bill in 2012 that required an annual report from the Criminal Justice Council's Statistical Analysis Center. The law, part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative that looks to spend corrections dollars more wisely, requires one-year, two-year and three-year rates of re-arrest, reconviction and recommitment of released offenders....

Researchers studied 1,167 prisoners released in 2008 and 1,091 freed in 2009. About 91% were men. Fifty-nine percent were black, and 41% white. Those released in 2008 had slightly higher rates of going back into the criminal justice system than those freed in 2009. Of the 2008 group, 56% got arrested for a "serious offense" within one year, compared to 53% in 2009. Fennell said serious crimes include all felonies and Class A and B misdemeanors. Class B misdemeanors include crimes such as marijuana possession, prostitution and criminal contempt....

Perry Phelps, head of the Bureau of Prisons, cautioned, however, that the deck is often stacked against former inmates because they have trouble getting public assistance, college financial aid or jobs. Lawmakers, educators and employers need to face that reality and remove some of the barriers for those who truly want to reform to help prevent them from returning to their criminal ways, he said.

"We tell people in this country we forgive and forget. You go to jail and do your time and you are set free. But that's not the reality of it," Phelps said. "Some people are ostracized as criminals for so long when they go back to society."

A press release concerning this recidivism report is available at this link, and the full report is available at this link. Among the notable findings from the detailed report is that property offenders serving significant prison terms the first time around still have the highest recidivism rate, which leads me to worry (as my post title suggests) that property offenders may be folks most likely to learn about new and improved ways to commit new offenses while inside prison.

August 2, 2013 at 03:42 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Could prison perhaps be helping to cause serious recidivism in Delaware?:


"We tell people in this country we forgive and forget. You go to jail and do your time and you are set free. But that's not the reality of it," Phelps said. "Some people are ostracized as criminals for so long when they go back to society."

And if you are a sex offender you are ostracized for ever and in some cases killed because of that little thing called the sex offender registry.

Posted by: Jill | Aug 2, 2013 5:38:42 PM

It's almost like yanking people out of society for years on end, teaching them how to be better criminals and / or warehousing them, providing them with little assistance in reintegration and making it neigh impossible to make a break from a criminal past by virtue of the panoply of "collateral consequences" makes crime more attractive somehow. Weird.

Posted by: Guy | Aug 2, 2013 8:57:45 PM

The Professor's characterization of this study seems ripped from a 1970's Newsweek article when it was fashionable to lambast prisons as "Universities of Crime". The Delaware AG has the more plausible explanation--"prison sentences that do not adequately reflect the seriousness of the crime" or deter future crime.

Reformation has always been a matter of individual responsibility. Those who want to change their behavior, and have the discipline and ability to delay gratification, can build a new life. Those risk takers addicted to the street life who believe a 9-5 job is for "chumps" will continue to run afoul of the law.

Posted by: mjs | Aug 2, 2013 9:10:17 PM

"Could prison perhaps be helping to cause serious recidivism in Delaware?"

Isn't the question that's better anchored in the record of the last 20 years this one: "If prisons cause crime, why do we have so much less crime when we have so much more imprisonment?"

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 2, 2013 11:39:11 PM

...property offenders serving significant prison terms the first time around still have the highest recidivism rate,

Does the fact the offenders who are serving these significant prison terms have the worst records (ie. gravity of the offense commited) and are the most likely to recidive has a part?

Posted by: visitor | Aug 3, 2013 4:17:13 PM

Some thoughts on the subject from scholars:

Felons will find it difficult to rent apartments from wary landlords, to establish credit, and to find work--as few people will hire a felon. Consequences imposed by law include ineligibility for federal welfare benefits, public housing, student loans, and employment opportunities, as well as various forms of civic exclusion, such as ineligibility for jury service and felon disenfranchisement. See Michael Pinard, Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions: Confronting Issues of Race and Dignity, 85 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 457, 459 (2010). Other handicaps limit felons' ability to rehabilitate themselves in more tangible ways. Ineligibility for federal student loans may bar those convicted of drug offenses, even misdemeanors, from attending college or pursuing vocational training after release. See Pinard, supra, at 5 14. Drug offenders are ineligible in many states for receipt of federal welfare benefits. Id. at 494. Felons are ineligible for receipt of public housing assistance for five years after their release from prison, and private landlords routinely, and lawfully, discriminate against applicants based on criminal history. Alexander, supra, at 141–42.

The cumulative effect of such adverse consequences is to render an ex-convict a social pariah. "It is legal to discriminate against ex-offenders in ways it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you're labeled a felon depending on the state you're in, the old forms of discrimination ... are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights and arguably less respect than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.” Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: How Mass Incarceration Turns People of Color into Permanent Second–Class Citizens, Am. Prospect (Jan.-Feb.2011), at A19–20.

"Beyond the direct and indirect consequences of imprisonment, the convict upon reentry must still face those problems that complicated his life before imprisonment but that remain unresolved: poverty; dysfunctional family relationships; addiction to drugs, alcohol, or gambling; and limited education and vocational skills.”); see Ernest Drucker, A Plague of Prisons (The New Press 2011), at p. 47 (“Longer sentences also build incarceration rates a create a chronic condition of social incapacitation for those imprisoned, as they face severe restrictions on their rights and opportunities after release from prison…[they] have a 50 percent or more chance of remaining under the system’s control for life with recurrent arrests and periods of incarceration”).

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Aug 5, 2013 12:33:16 PM

"It is legal to discriminate against ex-offenders in ways it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans."

Discrimination based on behavior is on the other side of the universe from discrimination based on skin color.

I discriminate among my students all the time based on their behavior. The ones who turn in thoughtful, well-researched papers that show discipline and advocacy skills get the better grades; occasionally they are good enough for me to try to get them clerkships. The others don't get that kind of help. I don't consider that sort of "discrimination" bad; I would consider I bad if I did NOT "discriminate" in that way.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 5, 2013 7:48:47 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB