Report promotes alternatives to prison as national recidivism rate holds steady
An inmate at California's Chino State Prison talks to a parole officer in the overcrowded dayroom.
April 13th, 2011
06:17 PM ET

Report promotes alternatives to prison as national recidivism rate holds steady

A state-by-state study has found that four in 10 offenders return to prison within three years of their release, a figure that has held steady for the past 30 years despite massive state spending increases on prisons, the Pew Center on the States said Wednesday.

Figures vary widely across the 33 states that provided data for "The Revolving Door of America's Prisons" report, with 17 states reporting a drop in recidivism rates, 15 claiming an increase and one reporting no change between 1999 and 2004. Oregon reported the steepest drop, at 31.9%, and South Dakota reported the highest increase, at 34.9%.

The number of offenders returning for new crimes also varied significantly among states, from 44.7% in Alaska to 4.7% in Montana, the report said. Technical violations of parole - such as failure to attend drug treatment or testing positive for drugs or alcohol - were similarly wide-ranging, from 40.3% in Missouri to 0% in Arkansas, the report said. Technical violations also accounted for the bulk of returns to prison.

The report attempts to highlight successful alternatives to incarceration in states that saw the biggest drops in recidivism, giving taxpayers "a solid return on their investment in public safety," said Adam Gelb, director of Pew's Public Safety Performance Project.

"We know so much more today than we did 30 years ago, when prisons became the weapon of choice in our country's fight against crime," Gelb said. "There are new technologies, new strategies that are far more effective and less expensive than $29,000-per-year taxpayer-funded prison cells."

Those new technologies include GPS systems that monitor the whereabouts of offenders and help enforce curfews; and automated kiosks, which allow offenders to check in with probation authorities without having to take time off from work or other responsibilities, Gelb said.

Other strategies, such as post-release treatment and supervision based on risk assessments, also can lead to greater reductions in recidivism rates, the report said.

Kansas, Oregon and Utah, which saw the biggest drops, have made concerted legislative efforts to implement what research shows will stop the "revolving door," Gelb said.

"The research clearly shows that if you swamp a low-risk offender with whole of bunch of conditions and requirements, you're going to probably end up making him worse," Gelb said. "But you can have a really substantial impact on high- and medium- risk offenders by targeting them the with right set of programs and interventions."

Providing incentives to corrections agencies and offenders also nets better results, Gelb said.

Creating an institutional culture that promotes tangible goals such as reducing recidivism and substance abuse and increasing employment among offenders encourages correctional agencies to track their performance, the report said.

"Right now, incentives are mostly backwards. When offenders are breaking rules, supervising agencies win by sending them back to prison and getting them off their caseloads. That needs to be flipped so agencies get rewarded with a share of savings when they reduce returns to prison," Gelb said.

The state of the economy has forced lawmakers to reconsider alternatives to incarceration.

"Fewer and fewer state policymakers think that spending more and more taxpayer dollars to build more and more prisons for nonviolent offenders is the best way to reduce crime and recidivism," he said. "I think we're going to see more states move toward new technology and new strategies that are more effective and less expensive in dealing with nonviolent offenders."

soundoff (66 Responses)
  1. Dylan_the_Vylan

    @ Spector: That's a whole different arguement, but you're right. Without the foolish drug laws that we have, we would probably have less than half of the overall citizen incarceration rate that we do now. I fully agree...

    April 14, 2011 at 6:17 am | Report abuse |
  2. Dim Mak

    @Dylan_the_vylan: So you agree with my idea to eradicate the cocaine and heroin plantations, while legalizing pot, so law enforcement can focus on other stuff? Here's the problem with America in regards to social dysfunction as I see it. Kids are being groomed through parenting or media to be violent or schmexually deviant. They are handed toy guns for presents drugs in high school and brainwashed with desensitizing music/tv/movies/video games. Then one day they get their hands on a real gun and some judge chastises the criminal. America allows all of this to take place, because the evil being that controls this world has munchausen syndrome. Create the disease then pretend to cure it. Most people don't get it.

    April 14, 2011 at 6:28 am | Report abuse |
    • dylan_the_vylan

      @ Dim Mak : No, sir, I disagree. I beleive ALL drugs should be decriminalized. I beleive that NO government agency should have the right to tell us what substances we are allowed to use, unless somehow it directly harms others.

      April 14, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Eman

    Spector, Why dont you come and work in a prison for a day....You would probably soil yourself...Then I doubt you think Prison Guards are over paid....

    April 14, 2011 at 6:44 am | Report abuse |
  4. idealot

    Well said, Dylan the Vylan!

    April 14, 2011 at 7:11 am | Report abuse |
  5. idealot

    Hot young prosecutors looking to make political headlines, politicians playing on fears about public safety, religious leaders imposing archaic moral values, America's "individual responsibility" culture....

    Lock 'em up!

    April 14, 2011 at 7:14 am | Report abuse |
  6. Sagebrush Shorty

    Once again proving that the experts know very little.

    April 14, 2011 at 7:19 am | Report abuse |
  7. idealot

    The reason is that Americans are naturally more criminally inclined than other nationalities, so of course we have a larger percentage-wise prison population than any other "developed' country...

    April 14, 2011 at 7:20 am | Report abuse |
  8. Bill

    Let all non-violent drug offenders go free and require them to do community service or go back to finish their sentences. Have a separate prison for all non-violent offenders that focuses on rehabilitation – but one mistake and you go to the big boy prison. Take all violent and child predators and give them harsh sentences and strict parole/probation rules (probabtion officers will have plenty of free time not worrying about all of those now free non-violent offenders). Or maybe just put all violent offenders on planes to Afghanistan and drop them off – and put our troops on the return flights!

    April 14, 2011 at 7:21 am | Report abuse |
    • dylan_the_vylan

      @ Bill : HOOAH!!

      April 14, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Report abuse |
  9. nick2

    Our propensity to lock 'em up has become a part of the problem. Not only does it cost the tax payer a fortune – but it breeds a professional criminal.
    Non violent criminals SHOULD NOT be incarcerated. They can be required to do civil projects from street cleaning to remedial programs. They can wear ankle bracelets if necessary but they should NOT become an additional unnecessary cost to the taxpayers. We have a double edged problem here because there is a vested interest in locking them up – a lot of people make their livelihood from being a part of it.

    April 14, 2011 at 7:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Rev. John H. Baumgartner

      Good suggestion!!!

      April 16, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rev. John H. Baumgartner

      Additionally, use some of what it would cost to train and hire (create new jobs), people to administrate and supervise the programs to keep the exconvicts out of prison and moving towards stable purposefull independent living. See additional post below.

      April 16, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Chick

    Put me in prison...i work every day....decent job....productive member of society...i struggle to keep food on the table....prices keep going up on paycheck stays the same...i want to live in a state of the art prison-condo. Take care of me....i would love to be pampered

    April 14, 2011 at 8:46 am | Report abuse |
  11. Rev. John H. Baumgartner

    Be certain to prepare the inmates for success on the outside. Where does an former convict go for housing and a job. Many times no family or friends on the outside. When they are released how do they get housing and a job with little to no money in their pocket and a criminal record. Returning to former life sets them up for failure. Transitional homes which specialize in providing living arrangements, job training, addictions counseling etc. make a big difference and can be sure subsidies are not wasted and take up the slack so that the former convict can be prepared for success rather than set up for failure. - CNN how about doing a news special regarding transitional homes both religious and non religious which have a great success rate with their clients? Contact me if you are interested.

    April 16, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rev. John H. Baumgartner

      The Doorway of Hope a ministry of Heritage Baptist Church of Berwick, PA using the Reformers Unanimous program along with intensive case managemt is zealously addressing this issue at their local Columbia County Prison which also houses Federal Prisoners. Currently we are looking to expand to a 10 to 15 bed women's transitional home to continue this effort which we bagan in 2010. It will provide 9 months to 1 year of housing with strong emphasis on responsibility and accountability (job training, education, cooperation with local businesses who will hire and pay livable wages).

      April 16, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • AM

      How come no one speaks of expungement for one time conviction? If the exfelon had something to work towards and with the threat of losing this same opportunity more exfelons could get better jobs as a rule not exception . NYS has a certificate of relief but it still does not seal record. This would give exfelons a fighting chance on the outside.

      April 19, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Report abuse |
  12. LouisC

    I'm a correctional officer in a medium custody facility. What needs to happen is society has to stop catering to the wants of the inmates. Prison should be a punishment, not a sleepaway camp.

    April 16, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Connie

    The system is set up for failure . How are they supposed to get a job or go back to school and become productive members of society when they can't get employed or get help for with higher education? What else is there to do? So tax payers pay to house them for life.

    April 16, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |


    Unfortunately, change is often brought about due to budget crisis. Last year California adopted a New Parole Model which incorporated much of what research says that works – lower caseloads for parole agents, validated assessments, and providing services which addresses no less than three of the criminogenic needs. Then, DomdeDomDom………the budget crisis hit and it appears that the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:18 am | Report abuse |
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