Second Chances: Fighting Recidivism with Policy
July 23, 2014
Author: Grace Waweru, C’15
Today, the U.S. is considered to be the most punitive nation in the world. According to William J. Stuntz in The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, with the dramatic increase in the number of people in jails and prisons in the last thirty five years – from 30,000 people in 1972 to almost 2.3 million people today – and with almost five million people on probation and parole in the country, the U.S. now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Returning from prison to the community involves a long and complex process. Today, legal and practical barriers for ex-offenders have increased. For example, public housing laws bar offenders from housing and some private landlords simply even refuse to lease housing to ex-prisoners. Not only is it difficult for many ex-prisoners to find housing but employment also is an issue. Federal and state laws broadly prohibit ex-offenders from jobs, and some private employers are less willing to hire them. Furthermore, offenders often have low levels of education, little job experience, mental health problems, poor social networks, and the stigma of prison time. Consequently, recidivism, which refers to the percentage of former prisoners who are rearrested for a similar offense, is at a staggering rate today. According to a study released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67.8% of 404,638 state prisoners tracked from 30 states who were released in 2005 were rearrested within three years of their release.
There are some ways that the challenge of re-entry has revolutionized over the years which help to explain the high recidivism rates today. To begin with, the rising crime levels since the 1980s have produced tough-on crime attitudes which have resulted in longer sentences than in the past. This means that today’s ex-offenders are more likely to be more disconnected to family and friends, have a higher prevalence of untreated substance abuse and mental illness, and be less educated and employable. Secondly, beliefs have risen over the years that rehabilitation does not work with some critics saying it would be more effective if prisoners were not pressured to participate in these programs. Thirdly, there’s been a reduction in funding for prison programs and community social services due to shortage in state budgets. Fourthly, prison programs which keep inmates busy and maintain order rather than actually prepare them for life after imprisonment are seen as more valuable today. Lastly, many states still lack parole boards, and the parole supervision model has changed from casework to a surveillance model which reflects a shift of focus for parole from helping inmates to policing them.
The question of what works is important when investing in programs considering the massive budget shortfall that States are facing. Several programs are currently in place to aid ex-offenders and offenders with successfully transitioning back into the community. Some have proven successful. For instance, according to researchers of one study conducted at RAND, a non-profit research organization, inmates who engaged in vocational training while in prison were 13% less likely to return to prison and 13% more likely to find a job upon release than those who do not. However, several programs have been found not to work. For example, according to a recent study by the Pennsylvania Corrections Department, 67% of inmates sent to halfway houses, facilities where inmates are sent toward the end of their sentences – with the promise of receiving therapy, drug treatment, job training and other services to aid in the transition process – were rearrested within three years, compared with 60 percent of inmates who were released to the streets (NYT).
As a Programs Support Intern at the Bureau of Justice Assistance, I assist BJA staff and analysts on tasks related to performance measures for all the programs and initiatives administered by BJA. One such BJA program that I was assigned to review was the Second Chance Act, which is legislation that provides federal grants for programs and services that work to reduce recidivism and improve offender outcomes. The Second Chance Act has been an important piece of legislation because it is geared towards bridging the gap that has long existed between the multitude of various reentry and rehabilitation programs that exist today and the prisoners they are geared to serve by providing the additional and necessary funding local governments and organizations need in order to provide literacy classes, job training, education programs, and substance abuse and rehabilitation programs for offenders.
As an intern interested in attending law school, my internship with BJA has exposed me to several aspects of law that I had never considered as potential pursuits. Working with data and reports related to reentry programs and the Second Chance Act has motivated me to pursue a law degree that would equip me to delve deeper in understanding and helping to address one of the biggest challenges the U.S. criminal justice system faces today: its prisoner recidivism rate.
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