Signs of Hope For “Stubborn” Revolving Door of Prisons


There’s a lot of truth to the popular image of the “revolving door” of U.S. prisons. The first state-by-state survey of repeat criminality, issued today by the Pew Center on the States, found a “stubbornly high” rate of return to prison: 43 percent of inmates released in 2004 and 45 percent of those freed in 1999 were back within three years.

Pew did find some signs of hope from states that use proved methods to avoid sending ex-prisoners back to long periods of custody for minor violations.

Pew’s effort is the first since the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) discovered in 1994 that about 52 percent of inmates were reincarcerated within three years. The old and new surveys can’t be compared because of differing methodologies.

Nevertheless, a look at states involved in both Pew and BJS surveys found that recidivism rates have been largely stable–around 40 percent.

While the Pew Center stopped short of declaring that the recidivism picture is improving nationally, Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Public Safety Performance Project, told reporters that several states are experimenting with ways of getting a better return on the billions of dollars spent annually on public safety–what Gelb termed a “triumph of science over sound bytes.”

Kansas, Oregon, Utah lead in declining returns

The new report says that three states, Kansas, Oregon, and Utah, led the U.S. in declining returns to prison in the two release groups studied by Pew: 1999 and 2004. Pew called Oregon a “national standout” for reducing recidivism by 31 percent between the 1999 and 2004 release groups.

Oregon stepped up its inmate case management during imprisonment and after release and subjected ex-inmates to “swift, certain consequences for violations” that rarely result in a return to prison.

Pew documented similar changes in Michigan and Missouri. In Missouri, a new risk assessment tool categorizes parolees and helps sets supervision levels. Parole officers can invoke a range of sanctions, including electronic monitoring, residential drug treatment, or “shock time” in jail.

The “dramatic” payoff, according to Pew, was the percentage drop of Missouri offenders returned to prison within two years–falling from 46 percent to 36.4 percent between 2004 and 2009.

Pew’s Gelb expressed the hope that a series of corrections reform measures in many states will eventually bring down the national recidivism rate.

Kansas and Texas pioneered the approach in 2007 by foregoing new prison construction to invest money in a variety of services to offenders. Kentucky and Arkansas adopted similar plans this year, and legislation is being debated in Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Alabama, Gelb said.

Although Pew published all the state-by-state data it could get–33 states for 1999 and 41 for 2004–it cautioned against concluding how well or how badly state criminal justice systems are doing based on the recidivism numbers alone. The percent of ex-inmates who return to prison is influenced by the kinds of offenders who end up in prison in the first place. For example, a state that sends lots of low-level offenders to prison might look good compared with other states if relatively few of them are reincarcerated.

Pew said “research indicates that strong implementation of evidence-based practices and programs can reduce recidivism rates by 50 percent.”

It said Arizona combined new legislation and “persistent efforts by the courts and probation officials” to achieve a 31 percent drop in new felony convictions of probationers in the last two years.

Surveys back the idea that Americans are “sick and tired of the revolving door” and are “willing to make tough tradeoffs” to reduce the problem, Gelb says.

A national survey commissioned by Pew last year found that 87 percent of voters favor reducing prison time for low-risk nonviolent offenders and reinvesting some of the savings to strengthen probation and parole systems that hold offenders accountable for crimes.

Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists, is News Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.

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