The state bill to charge inmates a daily fee raises an important question: what do we do with ex-offenders? The answer is that the harder we work to release ex-offenders in better shape than when they were incarcerated and facilitate their successful re-entry into society, everyone will be better off.
State prison systems are most often called some variant of a department of "correction"; this is an aspiration. It is an aspiration that is, after releasing an inmate, undermined by housing complications, drug and medical issues, the lack of employment, and criminal records. But "correction," nonetheless, is an aspiration we can achieve. Here's how.
When inmates are sentenced and serve time behind bars, that time can be used to improve the inmate, or not. While in prison, inmates can participate in various recidivism (reoffending) reducing treatment programs if available. This includes but is not limited to anger management, drug treatment, education and vocation training, sex offender relapse prevention, to name a few. Programs are necessary but not entirely sufficient.
After release from prison, life often becomes more difficult for ex-offenders than it was while locked up. The three most pressing re-entry challenges are: 1) a place to live/housing; 2) drug treatment/medical care; and 3) employment. A deficiency in any one of these three is a serious risk factor to relapse.
A visceral reaction is that "we should just keep them locked up" or "they screwed up; too bad for them." But keeping them locked up becomes insanely expensive, and by not facilitating ex-offenders' successful reintegration into society upon release we are not helping our communities.
Probation and parole, both used post-release to monitor inmates, are very important to help reducing re-offending. The idea that we release ex-offenders from prison with all the re-entry challenges that they face without supervision is absurd. Some form of post-release supervision is necessary. This need not always be done directly by the government. Non-profits and religious organizations could be a good place to turn to for help with this endeavor.
This idea of someone being an "ex-con" brings me to my next point: Second Chance Legislation. People make mistakes. Some mistakes are not serious; some are. There is very good research showing that after being crime-free for seven years, the probability of reoffending is about the same as someone who never offended in the first place. Depending on the offender this might be grounds for someone to have a criminal record sealed or expunged. Why do that? Because a criminal record often acts as a continued sentence and makes it more difficult for ex-offenders to get housing, jobs and educational opportunities. I am fully aware of the importance of a criminal record as a public safety tool. My point is that after a certain time has passed and someone has not re-offended, a criminal record might not always be a public safety tool or in the best interest of justice. Second Chance Legislation was passed with bipartisan support at the federal level in 2008.
One very important thing to remember is that there is no magic program that will end recidivism. The most effective programs have been found to reduce recidivism by 10 to 15 percent; on rare occasion, up to 20 percent. Post-release programs to help reentry can reduce recidivism up to about 30 percent. When programs work, it doesn't mean everyone who participates will be crime-free upon release; it means that fewer people will re-offend.
For example, assume the normal rate of recidivism is 50 percent. Now, we have 100 offenders participate in a prison treatment program that works. (Let's assume that it is evidence-based and it does reduce recidivism by a modest 10 percent.) Without the program, 50 people will reoffend. With the program, 45 people will re-offend. If five fewer re-offenders doesn't sound like a big deal, multiply that times the thousands of offenders who might benefit from a treatment program.
Programs won't ever reduce recidivism to zero, but if we can reduce recidivism and improve the lives of offenders and potential victims, we must. It is very important to remember that not everyone who participates in a program will be a success; there will be failures. When we hear of a failure story in the media remember that you don't hear about successes on the news.
PAUL HEROUX of Attleboro is a contributing columnist. He is a former director of research and planning for the Massachusetts Department of Correction and holds a master's in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.