Lawmakers Push To Reduce Prisoner Recidivism

From Vermont Public Radio
Dec 20, 2011
John Dillon

(Host) Vermont has set ambitious goals to cut the number of prisoners who return to jail.
The effort to reduce the recidivism rate is still in the study phase. But officials say it’s critical to control the spiraling cost of corrections.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:
(Dillon) Right now, 43 percent of Vermont prisoners released from jail are incarcerated again within three years.

The Legislature recognized that the high rate of returning prisoners makes corrections one of the fastest growing areas of state government. Lawmakers passed a bill last winter called the War on Recidivism act. But that war is still very much in the planning stage. The first step was research.

(Schlueter) “I think the good news is that there are many successful programs in each and every one of the topics that you asked us to look at that are successful or at least promising in terms of reducing recidivism.”

(Dillon) Max Schlueter is director of the Vermont Center for Justice Research. He oversaw a study that looked at recidivism prevention programs around the country and in Vermont.
Schlueter says Vermont has been a leader in certain areas.

(Schlueter) “Closer to home, I think it’s safe to say that the Department of Corrections and its community partners have long embraced notions of evidence-based programming and in particular probably one of the most essential evidence based practice, the use of risk assessment.”

(Dillon) Dick Sears is a senator from Bennington who chairs both the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Corrections Oversight Committee.

He says lawmakers want to reduce recidivism over the next three years from 43 percent to 30 percent.
(Sears) “And that may not sound startling but that reduces the number of crimes committed, reduces a lot of things, and the human toll and toll on victims and so forth.”

(Dillon) Sears sees the war on recidivism as part of a progression of reforms designed to reduce the corrections population and control costs.

(Sears) We started out talking about reducing the number of out of state beds. Now we’re talking about really reducing crime further and reducing the repeat offender. And that’s critical.

(Dillon) Vermont now has 522 prisoners doing time in prisons out of state.
Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito told the oversight committee that he’s working on initiatives that should cut that number over the next several years.

(Pallito) “We have a series of proposals in the 2013 budget that will bring our of out of state population, will continue to bring it down. I think you’ll be impressed when you see the totality of what we’re thinking.”

(Dillon) Pallito says the recidivism study is just the start of a multi-year effort. And he says a first step was agreeing on a common definition of recidivism so policy makers can track progress and see how Vermont compares to other states.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

In Nevada, “mandatory” parole release is really just a suggestion

Lock ’em up and throw away the key
In: Las Vegas City Life
May 13, 2010

The southern half of the Nevada Parole Board meets in a conference room in east Las Vegas — where they sit behind a long table, addressing a high definition flat screen.

Video technology and the Internet allow them to order up cases from across the state. Today, the television is tuned to the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in Carson City.

Gerald Hudson shuffles to a chair in the center of the screen. The 40-year-old inmate holds a jumbo envelope containing the last two years’ accomplishments. He recites its contents: GED, high school diploma, another diploma from a substance abuse program and a completion certificate from victim awareness. He pauses and addresses his crime. “I’ve lost so many years for this,” Hudson says. “Alcohol caused me to act on impulse. I’ve had time to think about the consequences and the people I hurt.”

Hudson is appearing before the board for his second and final time, after serving more than three years for his first felony offense — endangerment and inflicting mental harm on a child. This is his mandatory parole release hearing, which is required by state law.

The goal is to give offenders with sentences of three years or longer one final shot at supervised release. Inmates are supposed to go before the board four months before the final year of their sentence. Good time credits for education and substance abuse treatment usually move the release date closer to six months before the end of the sentence. It’s part of an effort to get more prisoners out of prison and into some kind of community supervision. Ideally, these inmates will have used their time behind bars to better themselves and reflect on their crimes. Parole gives them the opportunity to prove they’ve learned their lesson, with consequences for failure.

Otherwise, inmates finish their sentences inside. They get “dumped,” in prison parlance. When their sentences end, they leave with $21 and a bus ticket. They go back to the streets, with no supervision and no structure. Hudson seems like a model candidate for parole release. After he was denied in his first parole hearing, the inmate turned over a new leaf. His release plan is so detailed it even includes the specific psychiatric center where he plans to continue counseling.

But it’s not necessarily a slam dunk. The parole commissioners determine that Hudson is a moderate risk to re-offend due to the nature of his crime. And they’re charged with making sure he doesn’t — at least not on their watch. Whatever decision these three commissioners make will be sent to the full board for ratification. At least four votes are required for parole.

“Regardless of what we do here today, you are going to get out,” says Commissioner Michael Keeler. “And our primary concern is public safety.”

Hard case

Nevada has always been a tough place for felons. The state has some of the stiffest sentences in the country, and one of the lowest rates of granting parole. The combination fueled explosive growth in the prison population during the late ’90s and early ’00s, a period when the violent crime rate actually dropped.

Even when the state had money, it couldn’t keep up with the demand for prison beds. So legislators decided to do something about it. They created an expert panel on sentencing, and concocted a few solutions. One of them, Assembly Bill 510 in the 2007 Legislature, increased the amount of credit inmates received for completing education and other programs. Before the bill, the parole board had a lot of leeway to count credits — and could take them away if parole was denied. That caused a great deal of angst among inmates, who never knew whether the board would honor their efforts to improve.

“There was a certain degree of morale factor with inmates who had gotten diplomas or GEDs,” said state Sen. David Parks, who was an assemblyman in 2007 and chairman of the committee that introduced AB 510. “They wouldn’t get their good time credits. We wanted to make it so once you earn them, you don’t get to lose them.”

Legislators like Parks wanted to encourage inmates to get an education. And they also wanted to ease the strain on prisons. The law had its intended effect. After its passage, the prison population leveled off, and even began to shrink. Members of the parole board said it hasn’t had any effect on recidivism. Most of the inmates paroled under the new guidelines fare as well as those released under the old, subjective system.

Read the rest here.

See also: The Crime Report (May 26, 2010)

Inmate rehab programs sharpen focus in hard times

“Prisons Cut the Rehab Training” (March 8, Page A1) points out the importance of rehabilitating inmates, but missed a key point: Old ways of doing business have not been effective enough in reducing recidivism.

In my previous position as inspector general overseeing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, I found that its substance abuse programs were “a $1 billion failure.” We have done a great deal since then to improve outcomes.

Yet, some seem to want to stay stuck in the past with no attention to whether programs worked.

Due to the state budget crisis, spending on CDCR’s offender rehabilitation programs has been reduced by more than a third, but we are now focusing on cost-effective programs that reduce recidivism and have eliminated programming that did not prove successful.

As recommended by an expert panel, we are using evidence-based assessments to target services to offenders at the highest risk of returning to prison.

We are shortening our in-prison substance abuse programs to three months from the past six to 36 months to reach more inmates and emphasizing community aftercare treatment – a combination that has been shown to reduce recidivism. We will still be able to provide substance abuse services to 8,450 inmates annually – not 2,400 as stated in the article.

We are strongly emphasizing GED attainment, which can reduce recidivism up to 7 percent, according to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. More students – not fewer – will be enrolled in GED classes by utilizing teachers’ aides and combining classroom instruction with independent study. We are emphasizing vocational programs that can be completed in 12 months – which can reduce recidivism up to 9 percent.

For the first time, California is insisting that an inmate satisfactorily pass program requirements to earn time-off credits. New legislation authorizes as much as six additional weeks of credit for completing re- habilitation programs.

CDCR is training long-term inmates as certified drug- and alcohol-abuse counselors to help their fellow inmates recover and attain a marketable skill upon release, training inmates as literacy tutors and doubling funding for prisons to sponsor community volunteer activities such as Alcoholics Anonymous and other self-help programs.

Instead of staying mired in the failed policies of the past, our decision to focus on high-risk offenders, maximize use of existing resources and focus on programs proven to reduce recidivism is the right thing to do under challenging circumstances.

Read more here: