In the largest study of its kind to date, the Bureau of Justice Statistics within the U.S. Department of Justice tracked over a nine-year period the re-arrest rate of a representative sample of the approximately 400,000 state inmates nationwide who were released from incarceration in 2005.
According to the report’s findings, which were published last week, most of those released — 83 percent, or roughly 333,000 people — were re-arrested an average of six times during the study period. Most of those arrests, 1.6 million out of nearly 2 million total, occurred within the first three years of a prisoner’s release, though a significant number (24 percent) of people were also arrested nine years out.
Two critical conclusions can be drawn from these sobering statistics. First, it is clear that sentencing a defendant to incarceration does not by itself ensure that he or she will be deterred from re-offending after release. Second, we are not doing enough to provide education, employment and life skills training both while offenders are “inside the walls” and after their release to give them meaningful alternatives to reverting to criminal activity.
It is the role of law enforcement to prevent crime from occurring or arrest those who commit it. The prosecutor’s function is to ensure that justice is served when a crime is committed by successfully prosecuting the defendant and providing retribution and restitution for the victim, along with some measure of deterrence for the defendant and society as a whole.
These are obviously important functions of the criminal justice system, but equally important is a commitment by both the public and private sectors to prevent the recurring cycle of arrest and incarceration. We must redirect resources more strategically to create a “win-win” situation in which offenders receive the rehabilitative training they need to become productive members of society (particularly in the under 25 age group, which has the highest percentage of re-arrest), and to reduce the likelihood of their re-offending, which exacts an enormous cost — both in dollars and emotional toll — of additional prosecutions.
This is not a new idea, but sadly, little is being done to change the paradigm of recidivism except for a few bright lights in a sea of neglect and indifference.
Locally, the Goucher Prison Education Project has been providing college-level course training for state inmates at two prisons that can be transferred for college credit in pursuing a degree upon release. And the University of Maryland School of Social Work is providing a range of re-entry services to the 182 people who were released from lengthy sentences for murder as a result of the 2012 Court of Appeals decision in Unger v. Maryland; their services come at a relatively low cost — ranging from nothing up to $20,000 annually for those most in need — compared to the cost of incarcerating these individuals after a re-arrest, which runs roughly $46,000 per person per year in Maryland.
At the federal level, the U.S. House of Representatives last week, by an overwhelming majority, passed the “First Step Act,” which increases good time credit and opportunities for early release for federal inmates who take advantage of vocational, educational and other rehabilitative programs while incarcerated. The legislation now moves to the Senate where it is expected to receive staunch opposition because the bill does not include provision for reducing mandatory minimum sentences that have been one of the drivers of the United States’ incarceration rate.
The prison population in this country has been steadily decreasing for the last nine years. This is an encouraging trend, but this reduction is meaningless if we do not start now to develop strategies to keep people out of jail once they are released so that we are no longer in the unenviable position as the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. Much more needs to be done, which, in addition to providing much needed services, should include a more nuanced study that discerns between violation of supervision rules and arrests and convictions for new criminal acts, along with an analysis of the characteristics and backgrounds of those individuals most likely to re-offend.
Our elected officials need to acknowledge this important issue and devote their time and resources to providing meaningful opportunities to those returning to society after serving, in some instances, lengthy prison sentences. The positive impact we can have on people’s lives, both those returning from prison, and society at large, are obvious. Often, however, what is most obvious is the most difficult to see.
Gregg Bernstein was Baltimore's state's attorney from 2010 to 2014 and is a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.