Cutting Recidivism Saves Money and Lives

If two-thirds of public school students dropped out, or two-thirds of all bridges built collapsed within three years, would citizens tolerate it? The people of Georgia would never stand for that kind of failure. But that is exactly what is happening all across the U.S. in our prison systems.

Last year, some 20,000 people were released from Georgia's prisons to re-enter our communities. If trends of the past decade continue, two-thirds of them will be rearrested within three years. That failure rate is a clear and present threat to public safety.

Not only is this revolving door a threat to public safety, but it results in an increasing burden on each and every taxpayer.

The key to public safety and fiscal sanity is not just getting dangerous people off the streets but also making sure that men and women who eventually leave prison have changed and can stay crime-free on the outside.

The Georgia corrections budget was $1.1 billion in 2008, nearly 6 percent of the state's general funds. The state's deficit is so severe that it threatens to shut down our 4-H program and cripple the higher education system.

Every year an inmate spends in Georgia's prisons costs citizens $17,500 per inmate, and our growing prison population is already bursting at the seams with 53,000 inmates.

Georgians simply can't afford for the corrections system to maintain the status quo.

Just as a student's success isn't measured by his entrance into high school but by his graduation, and a bridge's value isn't measured by its completion but by its long-term reliability, celebrating taking criminals off the street with little thought to their imminent return to society is foolhardy.

The key to public safety and fiscal sanity is not just getting dangerous people off the streets but also making sure that men and women who eventually leave prison have changed and can stay crime-free on the outside.

We're happy to say that the Georgia Department of Corrections is serious about making sure that offenders who get out of prison have what it takes to succeed. Focusing on cutting recidivism rates is a high priority. Not only will it make our communities safer, a key public safety priority, but will save taxpayers the high cost of re-incarceration.

But the state cannot do this alone. The men and women who step out of prison gates have an overwhelming number of needs--from personal transformation, housing, transportation, and employment to medical care and education.

But more importantly, they need the help of a community that will rally around them and provide the counseling, encouragement, and love that truly lead to changed behavior.

This can only happen in the context of relationship; and it is the churches and other community-based nonprofits that are best-equipped to provide this kind of support.

That is why Prison Fellowship, the world's largest outreach to prisoners and their families, is partnering with the Georgia Department of Corrections to launch Out4Life. This prisoner re-entry movement, which kicks off in Atlanta March 29-31, is a holistic approach to prisoner re-entry, aiming to unite the efforts of government agencies, businesses, social services, churches and other community groups to help offenders reintegrate into their communities successfully and safely.

Out4Life will bring together key partners in prisoner re-entry from across the state to coordinate local programs for returning offenders and their families.

Its goal is to build coalitions to raise public awareness about the need to rehabilitate prisoners and to provide resources, education and training for former inmates.

Several states have already enthusiastically embraced Out4Life. There are now 300 organizations in Louisiana working together in coalitions launched by Out 4 Life Louisiana in 2008. Arkansas' Out4Life kick-off last fall and Tennessee's launch earlier this month have met with resounding success and are building momentum across these states.

For the safety of our communities and the fiscal well-being of the state, Out4Life Georgia is a critical initiative. Every taxpayer in Georgia has a direct stake in achieving a better success rate for prisoner re-entry.

Working together, the faith community, community-based nonprofits, and the state can make sure that offenders get out of prison and stay out--for life.

Newt Gingrich is a senior fellow at AEI. Mark Earley is the president of Prison Fellowship and former attorney general of Virginia.

Photo Credit: abardwell/flickr/Creative Commons

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