Re-entry courts give offenders a chance to succeed

By Nancy Mahon, February 2, 2000 - The Missoulian

President Clinton's bold ambition to make the U.S. the "safest big country in the world" is laudable. To accomplish this goal he called for additional funding for community policing and stronger gun laws in his State of the Union address to the nation.

The president rightly points out that the drop in crime over the last seven years is due in part to advances in policing and a crackdown on illegal gun possession. Yet in his recipe to increase the safety of our communities he has overlooked one critical ingredient: reducing the rate at which recently released inmates reoffend. The nation's recidivism rate - the rate at which an ex-offender is likely to reoffend - continues to grow at an alarming rate.

Despite a trend toward longer sentences, approximately 95 percent of all people incarcerated in the United States will eventually go home. Last year alone over 500,000 inmates returned to their communities. Depending on the jurisdiction, the likelihood that these individuals will reoffend ranges from 43 percent to 75 percent.

Why? Because in most cases, at the end of their sentence, inmates walk out of prison with bus fare and few if any marketable work or educational skills. While many prison systems, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, require inmates to earn a GED, this credential opens few if any occupational doors and signifies that the person has only minimal skills.

Although the president did not mention it in his State of the Union speech, his administration has taken some steps in the right direction. Attorney General Janet Reno's recent proposal to reduce recidivism through "re-entry courts," using judges instead of parole officers to control released offenders, provides a strong first step. While this innovative idea deserves a chance to succeed, such courts alone will not solve the problem.

To be effective, the battle against recidivism should start the day an offender enters prison. We know that prison education and work programs significantly lower recidivism. Prison education programs can reduce reoffend rates from 60 percent to as low as 10 percent. In Texas, a state often recognized for its harsh sentencing laws and high inmate populations, the overall recidivism rate in 1991 for a degree holder leaving prison was 15 percent, four times lower than the national average. Yet these programs have had federal and local funding eliminated because of some political leaders' ill-conceived "tough on crime" approach.

But this so-called toughness actually jeopardizes our nation's safety by failing to apply what we know about reducing reoffense rates. It costs approximately $2,500 a year to provide inmates with the education that will greatly increase the likelihood that she or he will live an honest, tax-paying life after release into the community. In contrast, a year of incarceration can cost up to $75,000 in a local jail and $48,0OO in a state prison. As a taxpayer and as someone who walks city streets, it is plain to me that $2,500 without the political rhetoric about "toughness" is the better buy and the better policy.

As a result of high recidivism rates, many local criminal justice officials - including judges, prosecutors, prison officials, parole and probation officers and defense attorneys - are deeply concerned about our prisons' "revolving door." The sad secret behind this phenomenon is that we are not applying what we know to devise sound and effective policy about the importance of prison programs. Maybe because, unlike police, prisoners and the poor communities from which they by and large come, have little if any voice in the legislative and executive branches of our government.

Overwhelmingly, correction officials and wardens support prison work and education programs because they create positive atmosphere behind bars. Without such programs prisons will continue to produce violent people who will most likely return to the community. Offenders must be held accountable for crimes and punished.

Yet, studies continue to show that if prisoners attend education and work programs and participate in effective drug treatment programs while incarcerated, they are dramatically less likely to commit additional crimes when they are released.

Perhaps "re-entry" courts or other reforms in the parole system can be effective, but funding and providing education and work programs to offenders while they are incarcerated may be the best tools the president and Congress have to fight crime.

Nancy Mahon is the former director of the Center on Crime, Communities & Culture in New York.