Some Actions Underway to Reduce Recidivism; Not Enough
There’s an old retort that’s sometimes used to quiet a noisy heckler: “Sir, you have a magnificent grasp of the obvious.” Unfortunately, it seems that only a few of our politicians or other governmental officials do “grasp the obvious” when it comes to initiating ways to reduce recidivism. Defined as “an ex-inmate’s return to prison within three years,” the rate of recidivism is hovering around 65 to 70 percent, according to most knowledgeable sources. Cutting this rate, say in half, would save state and federal correctional systems billions of dollars annually, not to mention ending the unconscionable warehousing of tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders whose only repeat “crime” was having a forbidden drink or missing a scheduled probation meeting.
Last week, after the regular activities of a weekly visit with a group of inmates in a Florida county detention center, Anthony, whom I had known for many months of visitations, hung back after the others left and stated, “Well, I’m back already.” He had apparently been released by the court a few weeks prior to that visit, but had been rearrested after a few days of freedom and now had to serve an additional two months. “What happened,” I asked. Anthony said, “Part of my responsibility after release was to see my probation officer at least once a month. I made a point of seeing her the very next day after I got out. Then she wanted to see me again a few days later, and I complied. And over the course of a couple of weeks, I had to see her two more times, at her request. That’s four times, and I only was supposed to see her once a month. A few days later, she wanted to see me again, but I simply couldn’t make the appointment. That night, she knocked on my door, and two accompanying deputies arrested me for not showing up the fifth time, so here I am!” Anthony was not a violent offender, but merely a poor soul that had a past drug problem, and was a victim of the current local probation system.
I relate this true case, not to illustrate something unique, but to point out one example of the type of foolishness or arrogance that keeps recidivism rates so high. Probation and parole play an important role in the criminal justice system, but many say probation employment should be limited to violent offenders only. And there are other ways to reduce recidivism, for example through more realistic sentencing alternatives prior to actual incarceration, or perhaps an alternative approach during incarceration to help short-timers be better prepared to avoid rearrest.
But, says one critic on the internet, the current system in some states, like California, “embodies a revolving door ethos: lock ‘em up, release ‘em onto parole, wait for ‘em to screw up and then lock ‘em up again. It has become a system that measures its own success by incarceration numbers rather than by the ability to intervene in people’s lives to stop them committing new crimes.”
On the bright side, let’s look at what a couple of other states are already doing to reduce recidivism, as reported in the press and internet. Texas has programs to “put people with drug problems in treatment, which is much tougher than spending a short time in state jails and going out without treatment; also, the state invested in drug courts and programs for the mentally ill. And judges were given the flexibility to punish probation violators with community service instead of jail time.”
Michigan similarly has “a state-funded effort to help former inmates get on their feet and stay out of prison. Participants having just been released from prison come to eat, hear presentations and learn about resources to help them find jobs, housing and transportation,” relying on help from interns and volunteers. (http://annarbor.com/news/local-college-students-assist-former-felons/)
Finally, there are private-citizen efforts aimed at reducing recidivism. Probably the most outstanding example is that of a non-profit organization called Getting Out and Staying Out, a brainchild of Mark Goldsmith, who won the $100,000 Purpose Prize for his achievements providing young offenders within Rikers Island prison with coaching, life-skill instruction, educational guidance and job-achievement support. Mr. Goldsmith will author a commentary on these efforts, to be highlighted soon on The-Slammer.org.