California's Recidivism Problem

Prison cells.
Prison cells.

Two years after the United States Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its severely overcrowded prisons by more than 30,000 inmates, the state is still trying to figure out how to comply. Governor Jerry Brown released a new plan in early May that called for the early release of elderly inmates and the relocation of thousands of others to private lockups and state fire camps.

These are undoubtedly fine ideas, but they will never solve the fundamental problem of California's prisons. To do that, Governor Brown and his administration will have to confront the state's recidivism problem: too many people are released from California's prisons, return home and then proceed to commit new crimes or violate parole rules. Before long, they are back in prison.

California has the second highest rate of recidivism in the country, according to the Pew Center on the States. Nearly 58 percent of the state's offenders are sent back to prison within three years of their release, according to the Pew Center.

Unless this cycle is broken with bold actions -- unless people can be diverted from a lifetime of crime, repeatedly shuttling into and out of prison -- California will remain stuck trying to jam too many inmates into too few prison cells. This pattern carries enormous costs, both human and financial.

Under pressure from the courts, the state has a unique opportunity. It can confront its correctional problems head-on by shifting its priorities from incarceration to rehabilitation.

That would involve moving many more nonviolent offenders from prisons into alternative community programs for drug treatment and job training. The best cure for recidivism is for ex-offenders to learn how to stay drug-free and to develop skills for real, full-time jobs. There is nothing like a job to keep someone from reverting to a life of crime.

To do this, California would find itself relying as never before on nonprofit and perhaps even for-profit social service providers. These have traditionally been the organizations that work with inmates and parolees to help them re-enter society successfully. People who have spent time in prison need help, often a lot of help, to develop the necessary skills that lead to a job, independence and a responsible life.

It can be done. In fact, it is done on a small scale every day in places around the country. But it is also costly. Over the long run that initial expenditure can produce extraordinary savings for taxpayers. Right now, California pays an enormous sum, about $9 billion a year, to fill its prisons to overflowing. Since 1980, the state's spending on higher education has declined by 13 percent, adjusted for inflation, while its spending for corrections has increased by more than 400 percent.

Given the enormity of the task, California and other state governments burdened with huge corrections costs, are going to have to learn how to distinguish social service providers that produce positive outcomes from those that do not. It makes no sense to commit to serious reform, investing in drug treatment and job training, if you select social service agencies that are unable to help former offenders stay out of prison.

For rehabilitation to succeed, California will have to select organizations that can produce verifiable results. Social service agencies will have to use transparent, performance-based data to track their work, and they will have to be held much more accountable for what they do than they are now.

Some nonprofit and for-profit groups will no doubt be put off by such rigorous demands, but others, including mine, The Doe Fund, will welcome them.

For more than 20 years, our Ready, Willing & Able program has been helping former offenders in New York City and Philadelphia to develop skills, find work and become productive citizens. Along with like-minded groups, we are not afraid of having our work measured and judged. We want to know if we are really improving our clients' lives.

With support and guidance, people can lift themselves from unemployment, crime, drug addiction and homelessness. Over the last two decades, thousands of formerly homeless men -- 70 percent of whom are former offenders -- have completed our program; they have found private sector jobs, lived independently and remained sober and drug free.

Reconfiguring California's criminal justice system will require commitment and ambition, and it will be expensive, at least at the outset. But it could produce extraordinary changes and would surely save the state vast amounts in the future. Lowering the recidivism rate would significantly reduce the size of the state prison population, saving hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It would also cut the crime rate.

California will have to apply new rigor in contracting out social services and be willing to experiment with innovative strategies to meet the burden of the Supreme Court's order. But unless it makes a concerted new effort to prepare inmates and parolees for life after prison, the cycle of arrest and re-arrest will surely continue. And California's prisons will continue to overflow.