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. Jeff Spangler

    Does this data suggest that parole is a waste and that sentences should be determinate with no range?

    April 14, 2011 at 12:27 am | Report abuse |
  2. SickofBleedingHearts

    I am so tired of you bleeding heart idealist people that fail to see the real world for what it is!! I have been a prison guard for 15 years and can tell you now that educating them doesn't work and rehabilitation is a joke. First off, rehabs only work if the person wants to change and that goes for non-criminals as well. I constantly see them get their GED or even a degree from college and continue to repeat. Prison is a joke... especially here in Illinois! Criminals get day-for-day good time credit the second the judge hit his gavel on the stand. That's right.. sentence reduced by half before he even hits the prison doors. Then there is extra good time for school so of course they all want to play dumb in order to get put there and earn more good time. My prison alone has 9 outdoor basketball courts, 2 tennis courts, baseball field, soccer field, 400 meter track, 6 hand ball courts, horse shoe pits, 2 pool tables, carpeted indoor gym, and more. It is a freaking daycare center. Some other countries have recidivism rates of less than 10%.. why? Because they make it HARD time. You make prison a place that they kiss the ground when they leave.... and then they won't come back!! Until then... tax payers will always foot the bill and politicans will continue to use Corrections as a place to give jobs to their friends, secret contracts to family, and inflat the state's budgets.

    April 14, 2011 at 12:27 am | Report abuse |
  3. Mamagacho

    You can't really blame ex-cons for re-offending. We just warehouse them where they have nothing to do but smuggle drugs and sodomize each other. Prison is where you get your MA & PhD in crime. Now, if we retrained them, gave them a real chance of improving their education and skill sets, they might have a chance.. but then they wouldn't be supporting the prison-industrial complex that benefits cronies of congressmen and judges.

    April 14, 2011 at 12:31 am | Report abuse |
  4. Coach Lew

    The reason they return is that the Penal System is too lenient on the inmates. My goodness they have it made in prison except for being able to walk freely around until all hours of the night. They eat three meals a day, have TV rooms, Weight rooms, library's, dental care, medical care, clean sheets and linens, no huge responsibilities, so why wouldn't some of them want to come back in? Take away half of that and maybe half of them would not come back. Our priorities are all messed up.

    April 14, 2011 at 12:35 am | Report abuse |
    • leonid7

      make prisons even more dehumanizing and then see what comes out of them. I think you'd like the results of that plan even less than the current method.

      April 14, 2011 at 4:37 am | Report abuse |
  5. Gimme Liberty

    Prison is the USA's version of welfare, and prisons are profitable. The police state locks up people they don't like (minorities), the taxpayer foots the bill, politicians keep their jobs by being "tough on crime", and the rich get more slaves.

    April 14, 2011 at 12:36 am | Report abuse |
  6. Sharky

    Prisoners get free health care paid for by taxpayers that can't afford their own health care. Of course they go back, that's the only way they can see a doctor.

    April 14, 2011 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |
    • MissB58

      I should have attempted to rob a bank with a squirt gun at the moment my appendix started to go (last year)... I could have got it taken care of for free with no medical bills coming later. I could also get a bunch of reading done and get a second degree that I can't pursue since I have no personnal time left as I have been working my a$$ off for a lower paying job I was offered after I got laided off. If Social Security is likely to be gone by the time I retire... I may just keep trying to hold up a bank with a squirt gun until I die.........

      April 14, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
  7. OtherJohn

    And the other 60% haven't been caught yet.

    April 14, 2011 at 1:36 am | Report abuse |
  8. Steve9337

    We spend around $9,500 a year per school student and $29,000 a year on criminals? Anyone else see the correlation between the money and the prison system, law enforcement, and the judicial system? I'm not saying that we don't need all of these violent idiots in jail but for the non-violent offenders maybe prison isn't the answer.

    April 14, 2011 at 1:36 am | Report abuse |
  9. Rardo

    And this is why Canada laughs at the U.S We have all these anal laws and probably the largest prison state in the world.

    Then you wonder why American men are becoming whimps. Too many laws & lawyers.

    April 14, 2011 at 2:06 am | Report abuse |
  10. kenth

    why not give the inmates jobs as guards?

    April 14, 2011 at 2:10 am | Report abuse |
  11. jesse

    This whole article makes me go NAAAAAAAAAW! Ya' don't say?! We as a society don't exactly give excons any place to go anyway. You ever take a list of buisnesses that WILL accept anyone with previous jail time as a worker? Unless I'm a bit off on this, most communities don't have many options for employment after jail time. Even McDonalds is working on ejecting most of the excons out of their work force.... this is bloody fast food I'm talking about! It's not rocket science or anything with any real risk for major loss. If we only give them the option for homelessness and poverty or the prospect of going back to jail. They're going to end up back in jail if only out of necessity.

    April 14, 2011 at 2:24 am | Report abuse |
  12. Specter

    Reform our drug policy and you instantly improve the recidivism rate while at the same time make a huge cut in spending. That probably won't happen cause obama is a coward.

    April 14, 2011 at 3:04 am | Report abuse |
  13. Dylan_the_Vylan

    Allright, IO'm re posting this for a second time, because yeah.. I'm really effin mad about it..

    I CALL SHENANIGANS!

    THEY'VE BEEN LYING TO US FOR DECADES, AND THIS STUDY FINALLY, AND IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS, MATHIMATICALLY PROVES IT!

    The system MUST change.. It MUST change simply because the American taxpayer, in this Economy, will not be able to afford to pay nearly $30,000 for each of it's more than 2,000,000 inmates indefinitely..
    The system SHOULD change, however, because of many of the reasons listed in the above article. A 40% recidivism rate proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the system simply DOES NOT WORK! The Correction Corporation of America is one of many private corporations hired by the government (US! our money!) to build and maintain prisons and to "rehabilitate" those convicted men, women and children in it's charge. (Incidentally, they are also charged with guaranteeing the safety of those prisoners that they are paid to hold, and we all know how well they do THAT job.)
    If ANY other company in the U.S. had a product that consistently failed (often with deadly results, mind you) 40% of the time, they would be sued and the CEO's burned at the stake, just before they were audited, bankrupted and completely destroyed.
    The system WILL NOT change for the fact that companies such as The Corrections Corporation of America gives SO MUCH MONEY to the campaigns of those running for office, and the coffers and war chests of those who have already secured offices. Not only are companies like the CCA actively lobbying for contracts with our government, lobbying for lesser responsibility in the care of inmates, and lobbying for greater amounts of money from the taxpayers for each inmate they hold, but they also lobby directly to CHANGE OUR LAWS, not for any moral idealism, but simply to make the laws more strict so that they are able to get paid for more and more citizens who put themselves on the wrong sides of these laws.
    What?
    One more time: CCA spent $14.8 million lobbying the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Office of Management and Budget, the Bureau of Prisons, both houses of Congress, and others between 2003 and 2010 (source, Wikipedia) lobbying, PUSHING for stricter laws, so that they could lock more of US up, and fatten their wallets.. And many, many politicians are all too happy to oblige them. Why wouldn't they? They stand to fill their own pockets with CCA cash (recycled, essentially laundered taxpayer money) for going along! They play CCA's game, scratching each other’s backs while they endlessly study the law books, looking for loopholes and laws that they could tweak, (Or simply have new laws put on the books, just for them) to put more and more Americans in prison every year.
    I don't always agree with Bill Maher, but here's a quote: "Prisons used to be a non-profit business... The CCA and similar corporations actually lobby Congress for stiffer sentencing laws so they can lock more people up and make more money. That's why America has the world's largest prison population – because actually rehabilitating people would have a negative impact on the bottom line." -Maher.
    Bill Maher's right on this one.
    Americans are told that prisons are to rehabilitate criminals. This is a lie. Those operating prisons have NO desire to rehabilitate Criminals; that would negatively impact their profits. Instead, privately held prisons systems ACTIVELY make it easier for American Citizens to end up in prisons, more difficult for X-Cons to Stay out of prisons, and constantly search for new ways to make more and more activities illegal, chopping away at our freedoms, so that they can get rich.
    On OUR backs with OUR tax dollars, with OUR blood spilled in dank prison cells, tightening the legal noose on OUR children, breaking up OUR families, stripping away OUR freedoms, bit by bit, to line THEIR pockets..
    Every year since 2003, the Corrections Corporation of America has posted Record Profits...

    April 14, 2011 at 3:08 am | Report abuse |
    • AM

      What about expungement of criminal records.it is done successfully in other countries,ie. Canada?

      April 19, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Richard Mavers

    I was raised in America but now live in Belgium. In Belgium, I almost never hear of/see someone getting arrested. In America, it was all the time, almost everyone I knew got arrested. America just has too many silly rules- you don't go to jail if you're caught drinking underage in Belgium (the drinking age is 16 here BTW), or smoke a joint, police cars arent constantly swarming around here, looking for the slightest violation... If people are constantly being caught for little things, they lose respect for the system and don't have a problem with violating other rules.

    April 14, 2011 at 5:44 am | Report abuse |
  15. Lord Of Darkness

    @The former prison guard: All you guys are a joke that think you're cute when you treat someone like human garbage. I will see you soon. Hope u like warm weather.

    April 14, 2011 at 6:16 am | Report abuse |
1 2 3