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Over the past decade, there has been growing consensus on the need for prison reform. Observers from both sides of the political divide have increasingly concluded that imprisonment in the US has been overused, costly, and ultimately, ineffective. In the wake of the Great Recession, recent reform efforts have focused on limiting the use and costs of prison. Since 2008, the nation’s imprisonment rate has dropped by more than 10 percent.
To date, however, little of the public debate around prison reform has zeroed in on developing strategies for improving prisons’ effectiveness. US prison systems have been seen as ineffective, or “broken,” due to the relatively high recidivism rates observed among released prisoners.
Is it possible to make prisons more effective, especially in reducing recidivism, without creating additional challenges such as increased costs? There is no evidence that recent efforts to downsize state and federal prison populations have been successful in lowering recidivism, and there is good reason to question whether these reforms will ever yield less recidivism. If we are going to succeed in reducing the amount of reoffending in America, we need to find ways to change the status quo in current incarceration policy and practice.
The best way to make progress in reducing recidivism is through the delivery of programming shown to be effective in reducing reoffending. Such programming must increase to bring down the high recidivism rates long observed among US prisoners. Drawing on the lessons learned from what is known as the “what works” literature, this paper lays out a three-pronged plan for evidence-based reform that will help US prison systems become leaner, more cost-effective, and more successful in reducing recidivism: (1) increase the delivery of correctional programming, (2) reduce the size of prison populations, and (3) increase the use of risk assessment instruments.
Let’s assume that, without any budget increase, prison systems can provide programming to all offenders by reinvesting their decarceration “savings.” To what extent would the recidivism rate be reduced by such an increase in programming? The most recent recidivism study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which is the closest we have to a national recidivism study, found that 77 percent of the nearly 70,000 released prisoners from 30 states had been rearrested within five years.1 Based on the findings from previous research, participation in one effective intervention has been shown to reduce recidivism by 12 percent, while involvement in two effective programs lowers it by 26 percent. With a baseline rate of 77 percent, increasing programming participation could lower this rate to somewhere between 57 and 68 percent.2
Although a recidivism rate north of 50 percent may seem high, it is also worth considering the fiscal implications of a drop from 77 percent to, say, 68 percent. If we assume the cost of the average prison-based intervention is approximately $5,000, which is close to the mean observed for both Minnesota and Washington prisoners,3 then delivering at least one intervention to 5,000 released prisoners would cost about $25 million. With a return on investment of at least $4 for the average prison-based intervention, the estimated return (or benefit) would be close to $100 million overall for a $25 million investment in which the delivery of one effective intervention to all 5,000 offenders reduced their rearrest rate from 77 percent to 68 percent (a 12 percent reduction).
If decarceration is not accompanied by an increase in effective programming resources, then recidivism rates will almost assuredly stay the same. Further, if more prisoners are being placed in the community without an increase in community-based programming resources, then decarceration could hurt public safety, which would likely weaken the appetite for further reform. For prisons to more effectively reduce recidivism, a major shift from punishment to rehabilitation is needed in which there is substantially greater involvement in programming.
Given our long-standing notions of what prison should be, this would be no small feat. Indeed, one enduring school of thought has been that if we make a sanction like prison so odious, it will assuredly jolt inmates into reforming their criminal ways. But punitive strategies have been not only largely ineffective in reducing recidivism but also wasteful and costly. Instead, this paper calls for a more efficient and cost-effective system that does more with less or, more precisely, more with the same amount.
The prison systems in the United States are said to be broken. Observers from both sides of the political divide have increasingly concluded that imprisonment in the US has been overused, costly, and ultimately, ineffective. The bipartisan consensus on the need for prison reform—as demonstrated, for example, by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Van Jones—has largely focused on limiting the use and, therefore, the cost of prison.4 Yet, to date, little of the public debate around prison reform has zeroed in on developing strategies for improving prisons’ effectiveness.
The effectiveness of prison is frequently measured by the rate at which released prisoners recidivate, or reoffend with a new crime. The relatively high recidivism rates observed among released prisoners have commonly been adduced as evidence of the ineffectiveness of the US prison systems. Several decades of research by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) have shown that prisoner recidivism rates not only are relatively high but also have been fairly stable since the 1980s. In their most recent study, the BJS’s Matt Durose, Alexia Cooper, and Howard Snyder found that more than three-fourths of the nearly 70,000 prisoners released from 30 states in 2005 had been rearrested for a new offense within five years.5
But in using recidivism as the main criterion by which to judge effectiveness, we are holding the nation’s prison systems to a standard they were never adequately designed to achieve. Most prisons in this country were built decades ago, and few, if any, were designed to accommodate programming. Prison construction in the US has not been guided by the question: How can we build prisons that successfully reduce recidivism? Instead, the guiding question has generally been: How can we build prisons that effectively separate prisoners from society, reduce the likelihood of their escape from prison, and minimize their misconduct? In short, prisons’ design and operation have emphasized isolation, security, and control.
The emphasis on punishment is deeply embedded, of course, in our notions of what prison should be. Prison is supposed to be a tough and uncomfortable experience. After all, as the popular saying goes, “If you can’t do the time, then don’t do the crime.”
Indeed, one enduring school of thought has been that if we make a sanction like prison so odious, it will assuredly jolt inmates into reforming their criminal ways. Increasing the misery of the prison experience, however, does not deter prisoners from returning. Existing evidence has generally shown that punishment, in and of itself, does not rehabilitate.6
Even if we accept that punishment alone does not reduce recidivism, some may wonder why we cannot punish prisoners while providing them with rehabilitative programming. To a certain extent, this is what we have tried to do over the past few decades. State and federal prison populations began to dramatically increase in the 1980s, nearly quadrupling by the end of the 2000s. During this same time, US correctional agencies increasingly embraced the idea of using policies and practices based on empirical evidence of what has been shown to be effective—that is, evidence-based practices (EBP). As discussed later in more detail, however, providing prisoners with the interventions they need to desist from crime within the context of mass incarceration policies has proved to be nearly impossible, as the BJS recidivism data illustrate. Delivering programming and, more broadly, implementing EBPs have typically taken a back seat to the realities imposed by growing prison populations. The most urgent priority for many corrections agencies has simply been to find beds for the influx of offenders (re)entering their prison systems.
Grappling with tight budgets and limited bed space capacity since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, many states have been compelled to implement reforms designed to reduce the overall size and cost of their prison populations. For example, New Jersey has lowered its prison population by decreasing admissions to prison for those who violate the technical terms of their parole.7 More recently, Maryland enacted legislation that reduced the penalties for some nonviolent offenses while also limiting the amount of time parole violators can spend in prison.8 Other states such as Missouri have shortened probation and parole supervision periods in an effort to reduce admissions to prison for probation and parole violations.9 The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which has been run by the Bureau of Justice Assistance since 2006, has attempted to foster the adoption of EBPs, such as the use of risk and needs assessments. Perhaps because of some of these reforms, the state and federal imprisonment rate has dropped by nearly 10 percent since 2008.10
But can we reduce the use and cost of prisons while also making them more effective, particularly when it comes to reducing recidivism? There is no evidence that the recent reforms mentioned above have successfully lowered recidivism among released prisoners. Moreover, there is good reason to question whether these reforms will ever yield lower rates of recidivism.
Given how bloated the US prison system has become in the wake of “tough on crime” sentencing policies during the 1980s and 1990s, scaling back the use and cost of imprisonment is a step in the right direction. Yet, limiting the use of prison or increasing the use of risk and needs assessments will not magically decrease recidivism. It is unclear how simply assessing an individual’s recidivism risk or releasing this person from prison to the community will keep him or her from committing another crime.
What is clear, however, is that the delivery of programming shown to be effective in reducing reoffending must increase to bring down the high recidivism rates long observed among US prisoners. Remarkably, discussion about increasing prisoner participation in effective programming has been conspicuously absent from our recent public debate over prison reform. Reasons for this omission are not fully clear, although perhaps it may be partly due to the perception that increasing programming will increase costs. For prison systems looking to trim their budgets, anything perceived to increase costs is off the table.
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