Written by Matt Wisner
Last week I traveled to Philadelphia for a track meet, and because it was so close to home, my mom came to watch. I was telling her about our Obama Justice Reform website one night, and she asked to read my bit on Eric Garner and Broken Windows policing. After she read it, she immediately looked at me and said, “I know what the problem really is.” She continued, saying “Imagine this: a fifteen-year-old impulsively shoots a guy for catcalling his girlfriend or something, and then he’s sentenced to a ton of time in prison. When he finally gets out, he’s thirty-five, his family doesn’t talk to him, and he has no friends because he’s been in prison for twenty years. What does he do now? He turns to crime and just ends up in prison again.” She continued, “I don’t know if there’s a word for that, but I think it’s a massive problem.” A few days later, she sent me the link to a Wikipedia page on “recidivism,” which I had never heard of, but this is what it means: the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend. In short, during her hypothetical situation, my mom was trying to say that it would be monumental to implement more policies to assist in reducing recidivism rates.
So I did some research. First of all, the National Institute of Justice reports that “recidivism is one of the most fundamental concepts in criminal justice,” so I felt naïve for having never heard of it. One study that I looked into tracked roughly 404,000 prisoners in 30 states after their release circa 2005, and 68% of those prisoners were rearrested within just three years of their initial release. Of those prisoners, nearly 58% were rearrested within the first year after their initial release.
How can this issue be remedied? Many prisons have programs meant to improve the inmate while serving time; these programs include: anger management, drug treatment and education, vocational training, and sex offender relapse prevention education. However, these programs are rendered useless if the prisoner faces hardship upon being released. The three most consequential issues that prisoners face after their release are: housing, drug treatment / medical care, and employment — a lack of any one of these three things proves detrimental to the relapse of the ex-prisoner, so these are the three things that policy needs to target.
Anecdotally, there are some prisoners who are homeless post-release, and they intentionally become incarcerated again for “three hots and a cot” because those conditions are better than the ones they were previously living under. Some reformers suggest “inmate fees” — an amount of money that inmates must pay per night stay in jail to eliminate the problem outlined above. R-MA Elizabeth Poirier introduced a bill outlining inmate fees as an attempt to deter criminals, but thus far it is incredibly controversial and has proved ineffective.
Three potential solutions are the provision of job placement, healthcare, and housing — fixing the three monumental issues that prisoners face post-release and to aide in their integration back to society. Probation and parole have both been proven to assist in reducing recidivism as well — acting as a monitoring mechanism to keep the ex-prisoners in line. My best suggestion is to dramatically increase the number of ex-prisoners who are monitored post-release and increase the flow of money into funding housing systems and provision of federal jobs — like infrastructure construction and reconstruction, as Hillary Clinton outlined in her platform during the 2016 election cycle.