We wrote of the recidivism challenge two years ago [“Long-Term Crime Prospects,” Growth Strategies #950 (February 2003)]: A flood of prison parolees – over 600,000 a year – will be hitting American streets for the foreseeable future (the largest such exodus in American history), and historically, more than two-thirds of parolees are rearrested, and more than half return to prison, within three years. What to do? We cited research that showed personal intervention in the custodial setting, aimed at specific problems of individual offenders, was effective in preventing recidivism. We also noted the necessity of building strong ties between parole boards and local housing authorities, police, and businesses.

A recent report by the Re-Entry Policy Council (comprised of a range of national associations, and coordinated by the Council of State Governments) restates these points. It notes that US taxpayers spent $60 billion on corrections in 2002, up from $9 billion two decades before, and that the cost could continue to rise dramatically should recidivism rates remain high. The report also finds that the vast majority of offenders released from federal and state prisons do not receive the help they need to address their specific problems, which makes their re-entry into society extremely difficult (thus increasing their likelihood of re-offending).

Among the report’s key recommendations:

* Identify where released prisoners are returning, because they often return to specific neighborhoods where services can be concentrated.

* Identify funds that can be used for reintegration programs.

* Develop a plan for each prisoner providing specific services during incarceration that will make the transition home more successful.


But wait – there’s an underlying assumption at work here that may be faulty: that high incarceration rates, which have been so effective in dramatically reducing crime rates, must eventually and inevitably mean high recidivism rates. That doesn’t seem to be the trend in New York, writes E.J. McMahon in City Journal (Winter 2005): with felony arrests dropping as a result of the falling crime rate, New York’s once-swollen city jails and state prisons are becoming less crowded.

The number of New York state prison inmates rose steeply in the late 1980s, and continued to rise for a few years even after the drop in crime began to accelerate rapidly in 1993. The trend lines started moving in the same direction in the late 1990s: the number of crimes and the number of inmates have both been declining since 2000.

Crucially, nearly three-quarters of the decline in inmates consisted of nonviolent offenders, more than half of whom were serving drug-related sentences (and who were more likely to have been channeled into treatment or re-entry programs). As a result, a growing share of the remaining inmates are violent offenders. Recidivism – the rate at which ex-cons return to prison within three years of their release – has decreased in New York by about 16% during the 1990s.

Nationally, the number of criminals behind bars continues to grow. Only a handful of states managed to reduce prison populations over the past few years, and New York is one of only two to report fewer inmates in 2003 than in 1995. But just as New York’s crackdown on crime was a harbinger of national trends to come, so too may be its eventual result: a decrease in both the number of crimes and in the number of inmates.

Growth Strategies Implications

How gratifying to learn that high incarceration rates do not necessarily lead to high recidivism rates. Apparently, good policing and tough sentencing have pushed New York to a tipping point, deterring some potential malefactors – including parolees – from crime.

The incidence of serious crime in New York City has fallen by 70% over the past 15 years. Completely unlike 10 or 20 years ago, New Yorkers now expect to be able to walk in most any neighborhood at most any hour and not become victims of violent crime. Because such incidents are now rare, the recent murder of a young woman who confronted her assailants (at 3 AM in a previously dicey neighborhood) has been front-page news for weeks. The attackers were teenagers of 18 and 14 years (and therefore, one may assume, not ex-cons on parole), and were soon arrested by police, who received numerous tips as to their identities.

There is no reason public policy cannot combine tough enforcement of long sentences for repeat violent offenders WITH rehabilitation and reintegration programs for those who are willing and able to benefit from them. Keep in mind, however, that according to numerous studies (consult any recent issue of the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior), treatment programs have discouraging success rates, especially for higher risk inmates.

Copyright FutureScan Mar 2005

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