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."