Fighting recidivism through education and rehabilitation

Last week, I shared some thoughts about the prison system and the release of felons into society. My main question was simple: what becomes of an individual, released from prison, who cannot work? The article was met with many comments and questions. I’d like to add some statistics and facts to further emphasize that prison, while necessary for offenders, also needs to include education and rehabilitation. But maybe we also need to educate employers and the people in charge of our justice system.

As I previously stated, the United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. At year-end 2009, there were 743 adults incarcerated per 100,000 population. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics for 2011, there were 2,266,800 adults incarcerated throughout federal, state and county jails.

Additionally, 4,814,200 adults at year-end 2011 were on probation or on parole. In total, 6,977,700 adults were under correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail, or prison) in 2011 – representing about 2.9% of adults in the U.S. resident population. Also in the system were 70,792 youths in juvenile detention in 2010.

Most people believe that if they stay on the “right” side of the justice system, they will never have to experience jail. Yet more and more people are being sentenced to prison terms throughout this country.

The likelihood of going to state or federal prison

The United States Department of Justice has compiled statistics on the likelihood of becoming a prisoner in this country. Frankly, the statistics scare me.

  • If recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated one out of every 15 persons (6.6%) will serve time in a prison during their lifetime.
  • Lifetime chances of a person going to prison are higher for men (11.3%) than for women (1.8%). Likewise, chances are higher for blacks (18.6%) and Hispanics (10%) than for whites (3.4%).
  • Based on current rates of first incarceration, an estimated 32% of black males will enter state or federal prison during their lifetime, compared to 17% of Hispanic males and 5.9% of white males.
  • In 2010, it was estimated that 19.8 million people (representing 8.6% of the population of the United States) have at least one felony conviction. This is almost double what it was in 1980. Within some minority populations, those possessing a felony conviction exceeds 25%.

What happens after release from prison?

According to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice, there are more than 650,000 men and women released from federal and state prisons each year. These men and women return to their communities with the hope of securing employment and housing, and the prayer of not returning to prison. Sadly, the unemployment rates among ex-prisoners are between 25-40%. It’s not rocket science to see that that high unemployment rates are a key factor in recidivism. In fact, the one-year post-release recidivism rate is 44%.

Generally, at the time of release from prison, the parolee is required to seek and maintain employment. During check-ins with parole and probation officers, the parolee must provide proof of that employment. If a parolee is assigned to a halfway house prior to full release, he or she is required to have employment within 30 days of their release. Should the parolee fail to become employed, for whatever the reason, their supervision may be terminated and they can be returned to prison for violation of their parole guidelines.

Where does this leave an ex-convict who is finally released from prison?

Policies which seek to prevent a convicted felon from working are not only discriminatory but also cause a skyrocketing effect for recidivism rates throughout the country. Simply put, if you refuse to allow an ex-convict opportunities for employment, that individual will return to that which they know – crime. The biggest loser in this scenario is the taxpayer, but the ultimate loser is our society.

Education and rehabilitation

I have been in this business far too long to believe that everyone can be saved, changed, educated or rehabilitated. But I also know that for the men and women who are willing to work within the system, to accept the incentive programs offered, there must be something offered to them to serve as rehabilitation other than a locked down cell.

Prisons and employers need to work together to form a system that can punish, while providing a light at the end of the tunnel. You’ve got to give them hope.

The key for employers is to be open minded enough to accept the prospect of hiring someone with a less than sterling past. Employers who have a history of hiring ex-convicts insist that, generally speaking, ex-convicts can make exceptionally dedicated and motivated employees who are grateful that their employer has taken a chance on them. Many have had hands-on vocational training while incarcerated and are in need of less on-the-job training.

A convict with an alcohol- or drug-related conviction who has successfully completed a substance abuse program may have a strong argument that he or she has put their troubles behind them, unlike those who haven’t undergone any rehab treatments while in prison.

Government benefits for employers

The U.S. government provides many benefits to companies who actively seek to hire ex-convicts. Here are some examples:

  • Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC). This gives an immediate contribution to an employer’s “bottom line” by providing eligible employers with a federal tax credit for hiring an ex-offender.
  • Job Training Partnership Act. This can reimburse some training wages. There are also additional services that vary by state.
  • Prisoner Reentry Initiative (PRI). This awards grants to employment-centered organizations that provide mentoring, job training, and other transitional services for ex-offenders.

In addition to the above listed benefits, some states offer a free service that provides individual fidelity bonds to employers for job applicants with a conviction record.

The bottom line

If we used tax money to build a better justice system and facilitate rehabilitation with the goal that parolees can be taught to make it in the outside world, it just might pay off in the long run. If more prisons would offer continuing education classes and work-related job skill classes, we might be able to insure that a percentage of the men and women leaving prison will not be coming back.

Prison is for punishment. But if we can educate and rehabilitate while punishing, we may be able to finally get a handle on the outrageous recidivism rate of crime in this country, stop the revolving prison doors, and provide the people returning to society a life that will keep them out of prison for good.

Cait Boyce is the co-author of the book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman. She has worked in the legal profession for over thirty-five years, specializing in prisoner rights and fighting for the parole of non-violent criminal offenders.

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