Every day, the nations prisons release a walking crime wave: 70 percent of state convicts are re-arrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years of their release. A Justice Department study found that convicts let out from the prisons of 15 states in 1994 had been charged by 1997 with 2,900 homicides, 2,400 kidnappings, 2,400 rapes, 3,200 other sexual assaults, 21,200 robberies, 54,600 assaults, and 13,900 other violent crimes, not to mention over 200,000 car thefts, burglaries, and drugs and weapons offenses. Add in the crimes they didnt get caught for, and the total is undoubtedly far higher.
Cutting recidivism is the next frontier in crime reduction, yet most of the solutions offered to date misdiagnose the problem. Contrary to received criminological wisdom, there is no shortage of prisoner rehabilitation programs. What is in short supply are mechanisms to hold prison wardens and parole officials accountable for results. Prison and parole systems should learn from the New York Police Department, which engineered a massive victory over crime in the 1990s by rigorously analyzing police data and making local commanders responsible for public safety in their jurisdictions, with the help of a computer-based process called Compstat. In the same way, prison and parole officials should have to answer for the re-arrest and job-participation rates of ex-offenders. Its time to Compstat corrections.
Orthodox criminologys indictment of incarceration today runs like this: the United States once made an effort to reform prisoners, but in the late 1970s a mean-spirited vengefulness took over the national psyche. Governments jettisoned rehabilitation programs and turned prisons into mere holding tanks, into which they shoveled ever more victims of criminal justice bigotry.
Inmates are now unable to get drug treatment, education, or job training. They are released from prison with bus fare and nothing else. Little wonder that so many return to a life of crime.
The best way to refute this web of error is to talk to inmates and parolees about their time in and out of prison. Not only do their experiences contradict each of the fallacies that make up the standard story, but the offenders themselves stand foursquare for the primacy of individual over government responsibility in going straight.
Criminological Fallacy Number One: The state stiffs addicts on needed drug treatment. Sitting in a narrow holding cell on Rikers Island, Rosa Velez eagerly recounts her treatment history since being sentenced in February 1999 for possession of one kilo of cocaine. I did CSAT [Comprehensive Alcohol and Substance Treatment] in Taconic [State Prison], ASAT [Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment] in Albion [State Prison], and SAID [Substance Abuse Intervention Division] the whole time I was in Rose Singer [on Rikers Island], she says, pushing a wisp of shiny auburn hair back from her childlike face. Outside of prison, she has done detox and received counseling from Phoenix House, the Smithers Addiction Treatment Center, and the South Bronx Mental Health Center, all at state expense and through the intervention of her parole officer.
Now Rosa is back at Rikers Judicial Center for a parole revocation hearing, having disappeared from her current drug and mental health program for a prolonged cocaine binge. I need structure. I need help, she says emphatically, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she has already received quite a lot of state assistance. I need counseling and psychological help, she adds.
And shes still going to get it. A prisoner advocacy group, the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, will argue before the parole judge that Rosa be given 12 to 18 months of residential treatment instead of another prison term. Why do you think it will work this time? I ask the centers Doug Millar. Shes no threat to anyone else, and she shows a desire to change, he replies.
Rosa is, perhaps understandably, not quite as certain. Have you bottomed out? I ask her. After a pause, she says deliberately: Im ready to straighten my life out. Ive been thinking about it while getting high; now its like Im putting my foot down.
Maybe. Certainly her attitude in the past was not ideal. The last time she went upstate for parole violations, she vowed: Im gonna get high upstate and high when I come back. I was angry. I was rebellious. She was true to her word. Even the loss of her children has not been a stronger motivator than her addiction. I havent spoken to my baby in three years, she says matter-of-factly. She is forbidden from contacting her seven-year-old daughter, who is living with the daughters father in a location unknown to Rosa. Her five-year-old is living in the Dominican Republic with the fathers family. I have to do what I have to do for myself, Rosa explains.
Rosas extensive involvement in treatment programs is typical. Edwin Floran, a dashing 43-year-old with a dark goatee, now living at a Bronx homeless shelter, has logged five drug treatment stints while under correctional supervision for theft and narcotics sales, including two years at a Salvation Army program in Syracuse. But I always wound up going back to the same neighborhood and hanging out with the wrong crowd, he explains. I didnt think of the consequences when I came back.
Craig Trotta, a work-crew supervisor at the Doe Fund, a work-based homeless program, was assigned to seven long-term treatment programs, including Samaritan Village, Phoenix House, and Veritas, for his crack habit, while serving time for car theft and drug offenses. Even as he was graduating from one program, he recalls, he already had bottles of crack in his pocket.
Though I did not encounter an addict who had not been given treatment by the corrections or parole departments, critics like the Urban Institutes Jeremy Travis cite statistics showing that nationally, less than 20 percent of soon-to-be-released addicts report having received treatment while incarcerated. But not receiving treatment is a different matter from seeking and being denied it. Travis provides no evidence that prisoners are being denied sought-after treatment. To the contrary, many of the addicts I spoke with acknowledged refusing help offered to them. Was the treatment provided always a long-term residential program, arguably the gold standard of drug cures? No; but I also did not find anyone who blamed his relapses on inadequacy of therapy.
Criminological Fallacy Number Two: Prisons have become purely punitive, offering no opportunity for self-improvement. Jorge Acosta, a loquacious Doe Fund client, proudly shows up at our interview with a folder full of vocational and Bible study certificates he earned while serving time for assaulting his daughter and her mother. The state sent him to a batterers program in 1994, but he quit. He lauds the anger-management course he took in jail, however. It helped me a lot. It made me realize what I once was. Dr. Ruthshe was a beautiful person. She would say: Stop it, youre full of crap. I loved her for that. (It almost goes without saying that Acosta, like every other ex-con I spoke to, is an addict, which means he has also been given drug treatmentin his case the intensive Project Return.)
Exhibit A in the advocates brief against Americas allegedly mean-spirited corrections policies is the elimination in 1994 of no-obligations federal college-tuition grants for inmates. But the overwhelming educational need among prisoners is a high school degree or just basic literacy. Rare is the prison today that does not provide GED and reading programs, and most offer a wide range of vocational education, postsecondary programs, and cognitive and behavioral therapy.
Many of the real experts praise the educational and therapeutic offerings in prison. Mark, a hulking rape convict attending a post-incarceration anger-management class, asserts: Prison today is no longer a prison. Its a correctional facility to correct whats wrong. [Though] a lot of people just go through the motions with prison programs, [the state] puts it on the table. You gotta dig deep to get it.
Indeed, the overwhelming consensus among ex-offenders is that the most important factor determining whether someone goes straight is not the availability of programs but self-discipline. It boils down to the individual, I dont care what anyone tells you, insists Louis Pepe Velazquez, a gravelly-voiced extrovert who once dealt and consumed illegal substances omnivorously, but who now works for the Doe Fund. If you dont start rehabilitating yourself in prison, you wont last outside.
Criminological Fallacy Number Three: The criminal justice system is biased against blacks. Disturbingly, some of the truest believers in pass-the-buck racial victimology run rehabilitation programs. At a church-sponsored program for ex-offenders, the facilitator was visibly provoked by my statement that I was studying how to help people who may have made some bad decisions get back on their feet. The phrase bad decisions immediately identified me as a judgmental right-winger dedicated to wiping out the poor.
The facilitator began her rant. Ninety percent of drug users are white, but 95 percent of people in prison are black and Latino, she alleged. Why? There is an imbalance in the justice system because of the color of your skin. Prisons are built in Republican towns, but people are filling those prisons with blacks and Latinos. She crescendoed to her climax: I dont care what nobody says, theres no programs in prison. These men dont have skills, and now they expect them to take control of their lives. The father is in prison, and now the mother has her children in foster care, because she had to do the right thing for her children.
It could not have been a more classic dodge of personal responsibility: people are in prison because of racism, not their own actions. Someone who has no skills because he dropped out of school for criminal activity should not be expected to take control of his life. And the final stroke of genius: women who commit theft or sell drugs were forced to do the right thing for their children.
But then something remarkable happened. Her listeners rejected this siren call to self-pity. Coming up with race, its not what youre looking for, said a quiet man with two felony convictions. If youre beating and stealing, and you say, Im doin it for my family, you have to change your ways. It takes yourself to change.
Next, a sex offender in a varsity jacket and bouncy dreadlocks actually praised prison. Some convicts say theyve been rescued, not arrested, he asserted. Its a rescue mission. I was in prison already before I was incarcerated. I was locked down mentally. Its taken me 19 years in prison to realize what was broken and that I gotta fix it.
The facilitator wasnt giving up on her blame-the-white-Republicans theme, however. But why should we have to go to prison to get help? she asked petulantly. The sex convict stood his ground. I was one of those that got rescued, he replied. I was raised twisted: raping women, stealingthat was normal. I had to go to prison to educate myself. I needed that, because my decisions are not always the right decisions.
I heard this honest self-appraisal again and again, suggesting that the biggest risk in some prison programs is that the offenders will absorb the worldview of the providers.
Criminological Fallacy Number Four: There are no jobs for ex-cons, because the marketplace discriminates against them. There is no denying that if you began a life of crime early and have never worked, you will be unlikely to land a $30,000-a-year job. And you will in fact be turned down for employment again and again. But I was amazed at the number of offenders who had extensive work histories as truck drivers, deliverymen, or warehouse managers, interwoven with periodic incarceration. The overriding impediment to their continuing employment was not their prison record but their drug use. All reported losing jobs again and again because of drug-induced absenteeism and irresponsibility.
Even those offenders with little to no work history can hope to find employment. New York, like many states, releases nonviolent offenders from prison toward the end of their sentences to live in halfway houses in the community and go to work. Virtually everyone in work release has a job, often found while still incarcerated.
Rosa Velez, the addicted parole violator in Rikers, is typical of the less qualified work-release inmateshe was a high school dropout with no work experience and a raging drug habit. Yet within a week of leaving prison in 2000, she had found a cashiers job at a Zaros Breadbasket in the Bronx. She subsequently worked as a cashier at a Wendys at Rockefeller Center and at three McDonalds. Interspersed with these jobs was a 60-day return to prison for drug use and going AWOL. She also was fired from at least one job for absenteeism. Yet she keeps finding employment.
Prisoner and poverty advocates scorn such low-paying service jobs. That is folly. These entry-level positions allow people to establish a track record as reliable workers; they launch marginal workers onto the American conveyor belt of economic mobility. Many fast-food companies, such as McDonalds, are constantly searching for employees to promote; Rosa herself was proposed as a training manager before she self-destructed.
Here again, ex-offenders have a better grasp of reality than the advocates. A helmeted bike messenger with no teeth rallied a group of just-released felons at the job-search firm America Works a little over a year ago. Im on my second job, he told them buoyantly. I did it on my own. Its not easy. You deal with lots of BS and peer pressure. But then he delivered the hard truth: We need to start off at the bottom and work up. If you let go of your ego and show yourself more reliable than anyone else, theyll pick you up.
Strange as it is to say, I found New Yorks ex-offenders courteous, self-aware, and likable. I almost invariably received sincere thanks for attending group meetings, even when I had tried to convey societys frustration with crime. Many employers echo my positive reaction. The foreman at a toy distributor who has used work-release inmates told me: I was surprised at the respectfulness. Prison can be humbling. Nearly every inmate or ex-offender I spoke with asserted emphatically that he wanted to work. Talking to these men, you find yourself wondering: Are you fundamentally different from me? Are you a criminal in an existential senseor do you just have a weakness for bad decisions?
Now, clearly, all is not as it seems to the inexperienced observer of this population. Many criminals know exactly what you want to hear and deliver their lines masterfully, intending all the time to go back to drugging and stealing without a pang of conscience. Nevertheless, significant numbers of inmates come out of prison with solid intentions, and a few straightforward reforms could improve their chance of success. Two are key: accountability and work. Make the prison and parole systems more analytic and accountable, and immerse new releases into a flurry of work activity as soon as they hit the outside world, and recidivism could be cut significantly, perhaps by 10 or even 20 percent.
The first place to start is with prison wardens. The only time wardens are held accountable is if a staff member is killed, says Jack Cowley, an Oklahoma prison warden for 24 years and now a corrections consultant. Every wardens annual evaluation should take account of the re-arrest rates of his former inmates. That, Cowley predicts, would spark a quick professionalization of the staff to make them better role models. Now the staff becomes more like the inmates than the inmates become like the staff, he says. And indeed, I heard many tales of corrections-officertolerated violence and drug use, sometimes with the officer himself supplying the drugs.
Warden accountability would lead to scrutiny of in-prison rehab programs for results. Pay-for-performance should become the rule of contracting, whether the performance measure is the number of GEDs inmates earn, or the crime- and drug-free status of graduates of the reentry programs that prepare inmates for release. Research on the worth of prisoner rehab programs is thin; wardens would demand proof of efficacy if their job evaluation rested on results.
No inmate should leave prison without a birth certificate, social security card, and other documents needed to work. And no inmate should be released without either a job lined up or an appointment with a job-search organization. Tracking both numbersthe rates of documentation and of placement in job activitieswould be part of the prison oversight process.
Parolein the sense of post-release supervisionis another wide-open opportunity for reform. Paroles primary responsibility is to prevent offenders from recommitting crime, by monitoring a parolees observance of such conditions as curfews, bans on certain personal contacts, and requirements to work and to refrain from drug use. Parole officers are expected to check up on parolees a specified number of times at home and at work, and to track them down when they go AWOL. The problem is: no one has tried to figure out systematically what works in reducing recidivism.
When I asked New York State parole officer Candace Benjamin what she thought her supervisors most evaluated her on, I met prolonged silence. Finally, she answered: How well you meet your compliance requirements, such as the number of parolees you see in a month.
Benjamins uncertainty is telling. Parole departments do collect data on their officers activities, such as the number of home or job-site visits they make or urine tests they oversee, but they have not tried to link those data to recidivism. The observation that a particular parole officer has 90 percent of his caseload in a job may spark a mild expression of surprise but no inquiry as to why. The only thing sure to wake up parole supervisors is the re-arrest of a parolee on a highly publicized crime, but even that calamity doesnt necessarily lead to a rigorous postmortem.
Parole headquarters should develop a Compstat-like system that would allow the analysis of parolee crime patterns and the data-driven comparison of parole bureaus (which are responsible for different geographic areas). Top management would grill area supervisors on their caseload statistics, such as probation violations, re-arrests, drug testing, and job placement and retention. Supervisors who improved community safety and prisoner reintegration would be rewarded; the laggards would not. The federal probation department for the Eastern District of New York, under Chief U.S. Probation Officer James M. Fox, is creating just such a program. Biweekly meetings with the top brass will analyze the relationship between probation department inputs and crime outcomes, and will monitor the response to early crime warnings all the way down the chain of command.
To be effective, parole Compstat will have to measure recidivism according to re-arrest rates, not only re-incarceration rates. In New York State, for example, the parole department does not even know the re-arrest rate of its paroleesor at least, it is not telling. But the re-incarceration rate is a flawed measure of public safety, since many arrested parolees are offered plea bargains for their crimes, which keeps them out of prison.
Parole Compstat should also measure coordination between the parole and police departments. Has the parole officer briefed the relevant precinct about the parole conditions of recently released parolees, for examplewhom they are not allowed to associate with, where they are forbidden from going, when they are supposed to be at home? And has the officer responded appropriately when cops discover violations of those conditions?
The other crucial component of reducing recidivism is work. When a criminal gets out of prison, he should be swept up in work-related activity so fast that he wont know what hit him. The best medicine for these guys is to be busy 24-seven, observes Raul Russi, a former New York City probation commissioner and ex-head of New York States Division of Parole. The first 30 days following release are critical to staying straight; ex-offenders with too much time on their hands are more likely to go back to their old haunts and old ways. No one should leave prison without either a job to report to the next day or a placement in an organization that will get him a job.
Job-placement firms need to start by teaching a basic work ethic. Corporations are looking for someone who shows up every day and keeps his mouth shut, says Russi, who founded the nations first work program for ex-offenders. But with the offender population, shortcuts are their problem, structure is their problem. Being someplace at 9 am every day, its not what they want to think about. Job programs should report no-shows to their parole officer at once. Since for many parolees, drug use will torpedo reliability, employment firms, as well as drug treatment providers, should administer frequent and random drug tests.
Every ex-offenders promise to seek and maintain employment as a condition of parole is a powerful tool to mold behavior, but parole officers almost never enforce this conditionlargely, they explain, because few judges will send anyone back to prison for not working. As a result, currently only 53 percent of parolees in New York City are working. Parole departments must start taking work compliance seriously, using such intermediate sanctions as spending a weekend in jail or facing stricter curfews to enforce work obligations.
If, after a good-faith effort, an ex-offender really cannot find a job, the state should require workfare, accompanied by an ongoing job search. A workfare assignment will help the parolee develop habits of punctuality and persistence, and earn a job recommendation from a supervisor. To avoid the inevitable denunciation from the Left of re-creating slavery, the state could pay workfare participants a stipend. Private groups, like the Doe Fund, already offer subsidized cleaning, maintenance, and building-rehab work to ex-cons; the state would only be replicating a proven model.
Current criminological thinking is right about one thing: aftercare is essential to keeping ex-offenders out of trouble. A universal and strictly enforced work requirement is industrial-strength aftercare; but the ideal, boutique-version aftercare would be a mentor for each parolee. Though the prison graduates I spoke with were Ayn Randian in their assertion that it is individual will that determines whether someone returns to a life of crime, in fact the personal connections that ex-offenders have or make play an equal role in keeping them out of trouble. The fear of disappointing a mentor can be an enormous motivator. Byron Johnson, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania, recalls asking one ex-con how he had stayed out of prison. He replied: My mentor used to come in the middle of the night if I needed a ride to a job interviewI couldnt let him down.
The ex-offender Johnson interviewed belonged to a pioneering Texas program, the InnerChange Faith Initiative, run by the Prison Fellowship. The program runs a faith-based prison, pervaded with Christian worship and work, followed up with mentors recruited from local churches for each ex-inmate. A soon-to-be-released study suggests that the initiative greatly lowered recidivism. Program officials readily concede that they dont know whether this success results primarily from the Christian aspect of the prison or from the mentoring relationship, or if secular mentoring could achieve similar results. With or without the faith component, policymakers should start thinking how to multiply such role models for ex-inmates.
In the meantime, job supervisors often serve as informal mentors. Sometimes they even try a little personal counseling. Sheldon Flatow, manager of a sheet-metal factory in Queens, says he tries to teach mathematics to his work-release employees: With one paycheck, you cant have nine children with eight different girlfriends, I tell them. You cant keep doing this. Oh yes we can, they answer. But some glimmer of understanding may sink in.
Trying to prevent convicted felons from committing more crimes raises profound questions of character, habit, and the limits of social intervention. Sometimes only age (otherwise known as prisoner menopause) can make criminals go straight. But there is reason to think that the agencies that supervise convicts during and after prison can bring down recidivism, if work becomes a non-negotiable condition of parole. In addition, if the jobs of prison and parole officials depend on making improvements in public safetyif every re-arrest prompts them to deep analysis of what went wrongwe might in short order see some startling innovations in post-conviction crime control.