Recidivism Study Connecticut beginning to get a handle on repeat offender problem
The Hartford Courant
April 18, 2011
Despite the annual investment that now surpasses $50 billion, the nation's prisons are not doing a good job of deterring prisoners from a life of crime. More than 4 in 10 released inmates are returned to prison within three years, according to a major study released last week by the Pew Center on the States.
The study, with data from 41 states, found that 45.4 percent of people released from prison in 1999 and 43.3 percent of those sent home in 2004 were reincarcerated. The numbers have been in this range for more than a decade, despite efforts in almost every state to lower recidivism.
State-by-state comparisons on recidivism are almost meaningless because of differences in sentencing policy, treatment of technical parole violations and other factors. If, for example, a state puts a lot of low-risk offenders in prison, it tends to lower the recidivism rate, though it doesn't necessarily improve public safety. But Connecticut is beginning to get a handle on the problem.
More Safety For Less $$$
Like many other states, Connecticut went on a jail-building spree from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, spending more than $1 billion on new or expanded prisons. This effort probably improved public safety to some degree, but at a great cost. The Department of Correction reached nearly 7,000 employees and an annual operating budget of more than $700 million a couple of years ago. These numbers are down slightly, but are still staggering.
With the overall budget in serious deficit, the challenge is to get more safety and less crime for less money. In the last three years, there've been positive signs. The recidivism rate among the approximately 52,000 people on adult probation in the state dropped from 47 percent to 42 percent — a drop of about 1,500 probationers — and in March fell to 40 percent. The recidivism rate for those who complete the state's alternative incarceration program dropped from 45 to 33 percent since 2008.
This is the result of investment in more parole officers and more training, better risk assessment of inmates and therapies for the particular behaviors — such as drug addiction — that land people in prison. There are now units that deal with so-called technical violations of parole or probation, such as missing meetings. These probation officers now put violators on a system of graduated sanctions instead of sending them right back to prison. Though there are still more than 2,000 inmates in prison for technical violations, the number is going down.
There are also pretrial diversion and probation programs for those with mental illness, which is both humane and fiscally sound. Michael Lawlor, the former legislator who now heads criminal justice policy and planning for the state's Office of Policy and Management, said prison inmates being treated for mental illness don't qualify for Medicaid matching funds.
Let Judges Use Their Judgment
So though the state's recidivism numbers are still around the unacceptably high national average, the trend is in the right direction. The state's prison population is at a 10-year low of 17,650. The state closed a prison last year, announced that it intends to close another on June 1 and may look to close a third next year.
To keep the momentum in the right direction, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a former prosecutor, has proposed a system of risk-reduction credits — giving inmates time off for taking steps, such as getting the equivalent of a high school degree, that are proven to lower their risk to reoffend.
Also, the sentencing commission created by the legislature last year will look at whether the state's system of mandatory minimum sentences should be changed. We favor letting judges use their judgment instead of applying a one-size-fits-all formula, a step that likely would lower the prison population.
Another area that should be reassessed is the state's treatment of sex offenders, who tend to be lumped together and treated harshly. Some are dangerous and belong in custody. Many are not. As a group they have the lowest rate of recidivism of any category of criminal. Bringing public policy in line with research would further help reduce the prison numbers.
Not long ago Connecticut didn't even measure recidivism, now it does. As in most areas, you improve what you measure. "The more time we work on this, the better we get at it," said William Carbone, director of the judicial branch's Court Support Services Division.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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