How to jam prison's revolving door

The time has come to hold parole officials accountable for reducing recidivism.

Undoubtedly, they will consider this an unreasonable demand. Parole officials are likely to say that they can't be responsible for reducing the number of ex-felons who commit new crimes because it's a product of bad neighborhoods, drug abuse, and a host of other reasons beyond their control. Not so long ago, police officials said that they couldn't control crime for the same reasons. But when they were held accountable for increasing public safety, they adopted business-oriented practices that reduced crime rates in communities throughout the nation.

What was at the core of these new practices? For police nationwide it meant being proactive, not reactive. They were driven by results, not numbers. And they involved community members as partners in a problem-solving process, not simply as consumers of services.

The lessons learned from community policing can and must be applied to the problem of recidivism. For parole officials, this means doing business in a radically different way. It means setting objectives that are directly tied to an offender's success in the community and publicly reporting results on an ongoing basis. It also means being held accountable for achieving results that have value.

For example, given the importance of offender employment in reducing recidivism, it's an excellent benchmark for measuring the effectiveness of parole interventions. But if you're interested in knowing the employment rate of parolees in your state, don't expect to find it on the Internet. Only two states provide any statistics related to offender employment on their websites and in those instances, the numbers provided were more than four years old. Most parole websites simply provide information about the number of parolees under supervision by race, type of conviction, age, and other variables that are important to count, but hardly relevant to the reduction of recidivism. These counts do very little to promote an offender's successful return to the community.

It's time to start measuring what really makes a difference to community safety: employment of parolees. And this should be tracked and reported to the public on a quarterly basis. And there's no need to invent and develop a reporting system. The US Department of Labor already tracks employment rates of people receiving federal-training subsidies and it has a very effective system for distributing these statistics on the Internet. The same data collection and distribution process can be adopted by parole agencies to monitor the employment status of people under their supervision.

What can be gained from this? Plenty. By tracking employment rates of parolees, it is possible to determine which program interventions work and which don't. By adjusting the employment rates for regional differences in the economy, it is possible to determine which states are managing parolee populations effectively and which aren't. And by measuring rates of employment, we are sending a powerful message to parole supervisors and line-level staff about the importance of connecting ex-offenders to work.

The importance of that message cannot be underestimated.

When the US Probation Office for the Eastern District of Missouri initiated an offender workforce development program in 2000, the unemployment rate of the persons under its supervision decreased by 52 percent over the next four years. By the end of fiscal year 2003, the rate of convicted persons incarcerated for violating a condition of supervision in this district was 28 percent lower than the federal average, despite a 54 percent increase in the number of persons they supervised.

Paying attention to employment and supporting an offender's return to the workforce does make a difference.

It has often been said that what gets measured, gets done. The sooner parole agencies commit to measuring what counts, the sooner we can stop the revolving door of our criminal justice system and make our communities safer for all.

John Rakis has 30 years of experience providing services to prisoners and ex- offenders through both government and nonprofit organizations. This article is derived from a larger research paper by the author that will appear in the June issue of the journal Federal Probation.

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