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September 16, 2013

Two new commentaries on California's enduring need for enduring sentencing and corrections reform

Commentators in California soundly and sensibly recognize that last week's "deal" to deal with the state's overcrowded prisons (basics here) is not a long-term solution to the range of issues that helped lead to the state's problems in the first place.  For example, this new Los Angeles Times op-ed by Lois Davis, a policy researcher at the Rand Corporation, stresses the need for better prison programming to reduce recidivism. Here are excerpts:

If California is serious about reducing its prison population, one crucial component will have to be reducing recidivism. Currently, a lot of the state's inmates are men and women who've been in prison more than once.  They get out, they have little training or education, they can't get jobs and, in many cases, they return to lives of crime and find themselves back behind bars.

But a major new study of correctional education in U.S. state prisons suggests there are things California could do to slow that revolving door.  Our research demonstrates that ex-offenders' futures may depend on what, if anything, they learn while behind bars....

My Rand Corp. colleagues and I recently completed a national study examining all the evidence on the effect of correctional education on recidivism and employment.  We found that inmates who participated in correctional education programs — remedial education to develop reading and math skills, GED preparation, postsecondary education or vocational training — were 43% less likely to return to prison within three years of release in comparison to those who did not participate. That's a 13-percentage-point reduction in the risk of reoffending.

Inmates who receive correctional education behind bars are not just significantly less likely to return to prison; they are also more likely to find jobs after being released.  Prisoners who participated in academic or vocational education programs had a 13% better chance of finding employment than those who did not. And prisoners who participated specifically in vocational training programs were 28% more likely to be employed after release from prison than those who were left out.

With times being tough and budgets tight, state policymakers, corrections officials and correctional education administrators will rightly ask whether the cost of providing such programs are worth the gains in lower recidivism. Our research shows that it is....

Failing to invest properly in education and training programs carries real risks, thrusting more uneducated and ill-equipped ex-cons onto the streets. And in California, that investment needs to be made not just in state prisons but in county jails too, since realignment has meant that many offenders who would have served their terms in prison are incarcerated in jails instead. The benefits of inmate education can extend far beyond prison walls. When former inmates are able to land jobs and stay out of prison, their families and communities gain too.

Similarly, though with a distinct reform focus, this local editorial stresses the need for broader sentencing changes in California.  Here is an excerpt:

California has spent the past two decades learning a harsh, expensive lesson: The state does not have the financial resources to keep pace with the consequences of the hard-line sentencing laws imposed in the 1990s....

Politicians have long known that comprehensive sentencing reform is the solution, but have largely balked for fear of being labeled soft on crime. Until now. The compromise between Gov. Jerry Brown and Republican and Democratic legislative leaders on prison overcrowding creates a rare opportunity for California to seriously address the issue....

The challenge will be crafting new sentencing laws that deter crime, provide a fair punishment for criminal transgressions and reduce the state's 65 percent recidivism rate -- the highest in the nation. The national average is about 45 percent....

Comprehensive sentencing reform is the logical next step for California to create a sustainable, efficient and just state prison system. Maybe we can leave politics out of it.

September 16, 2013 at 09:27 AM | Permalink


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Two important things are getting missed. The more specific point is that inmates who are willing to sign up for and follow through with rehab and education are more likely to do better on release SIMPLY ON ACCOUNT OF THAT WILLINGNESS. It's less the "skills," which are increasingly obsolete in this economy anyway, than the internal desire to make a better life for yourself (and the people you run into).

The more general and related point is that the articles repeat the apparently indelible fiction that it's going to school, or other government furnished programs, that change people's behavior. It isn't. It's the DESIRE TO CHANGE that changes it, not the programs.

You can give a Ph.D. to a thug and you'll still have a thug. A guy with little education but the right attitude is going to do better, by himself and the rest of us, every single time.

I'm pretty sure people already know this, but many are reluctant to admit it because relinquishing the myth that we can make the world better with the right government programs is a hard, hard thing to do.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 16, 2013 10:35:15 AM

Great insights, Bill, which I would think would make you a fierce critic of the modern government programming known as the drug war. Aren't all past and present prohibition policies based, at least at some level, on the notion that the right government program for dealing with mind/body altering substances will make the world at better place?

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 16, 2013 12:31:01 PM

Doug --

Incapacitating drug pushers for selling their wares is the object of the "drug wars." The idea is to curb their activity, not change their minds.

If, however, serving their deserved prison sentences persuades them that getting a normal job when they get out is better than going back to hooking some teenager on heroin, so much the better.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 16, 2013 1:01:38 PM


As someone who was on the front line helping inmates with academic/vocational training, I must say you are 100% correct. Whether an inmate finished a GED or vocational program was always at least 90% what they did versus the 10% I contributed.

Posted by: TarlsQtr1 | Sep 16, 2013 2:01:00 PM

TarlsQtr1 --

The inmates who had you as a teacher were fortunate indeed. Being able to tell the difference between someone who's in class because he wants a better life vs. someone who's in class because he wants to tell the parole board he was in class is critical.

I would have considered myself fortunate to have you as a teacher anywhere along the way -- especially in law school out west, where they were all smoking pot (well, maybe not all, but close enough).

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 16, 2013 2:44:32 PM

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