Repeat offenders

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Sunday, February 27, 2011; 7:17 PM

THE NUMBERS are staggering. Some 5.1 million individuals are out on probation or parole. If national trends hold up, roughly 40 percent of them will be returned to prison for a future offense.

Yet many of the approaches relied on by state and local corrections officials to keep prisoners from committing new offenses are not just ineffective but counterproductive.

Take, for instance, community supervision of inmates deemed at low risk of reoffending. When these parolees are sentenced to halfway houses and other relatively rigid forms of community supervision, their tendency to commit new offenses increases. That is because they often are forced to spend a significant part of their day at the facility - time that would be better spent with family, obtaining skills or seeking employment. Forcing low-risk individuals to spend time in close quarters with more hardened offenders often works to undermine a smooth and crime-free reintegration into society at large. Placing high-risk offenders in more structured residential programs, on the other hand, reduces their chances of recidivism.

Consider also that drug treatment programs in prison tend to be less effective than those conducted when the offender has been released. And putting the onus on offenders to travel to often-distant corrections offices to check in with supervisors undermines compliance and positive reintegration, especially compared with success rates when parole and probation officers are stationed in neighborhoods with a high concentration of released offenders.

These observations are contained in a recently released report that grew out of congressional hearings led by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and then-Rep. Allan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.). Just as helpful as pointing out commonly made mistakes are the cutting-edge practices identified in the report.

For example, Arizona has instituted a program in which parole and probation offices that succeed in lowering recidivism rates are entitled to a cut of the money saved by the state by not having to return someone to more costly prison. Arizona estimates that this "incentivized" approach has saved the state some $8 million over two years. While most jurisdictions require released offenders to serve the full length of their supervised release, some states have cut costs and recidivism rates by allowing released offenders to "earn their way off" supervision by meeting specific goals and adhering to strict guidelines.

Not every new approach will work throughout the country. But there are plenty of good ideas, many of which could be tailored to the specific needs of jurisdictions. The report, in other words, should be required reading.


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