Sunday, January 08, 2017

Committee backs boosting programs to prevent recidivism

The section of the Texas House Corrections Committee interim report to the 84th Legislature on "recidivism" had some good elements, if not a groundbreaking analysis. Here are a few highlights:

First, it should be mentioned that Texas has among the lowest recidivism rates of any prison system, certainly among large states, in the United States. "Offenders released from prison in fiscal year 2011 had a rearrest rate of 46.5 percent, and a reincarceration rate of 21.4 percent within a three-year period," according to the report. Since in Texas one can be arrested for anything including Class C misdemeanors punishable only be fines, not jail time, many of those arrests are for petty stuff that may not really concern us from a safety perspective. Even so, that's a remarkably low rate; nationally, the rearrest rate is 67.8 percent. And our re-incarceration rate is also lower than the national average (55 percent within 5 years). Texas is one of a number of states where recidivism rates have been falling.

We've discussed before on Grits the reasons why, and it's not because we're doing such a great job of rehabilitating prisoners. Texas has the largest prison population among American states - greater even than California's whose civilian population is nearly half-again ours - and the reason is that we incarcerate more low-risk offenders who could be safely released than do other corrections systems where more rigorous cost-benefit analyses are applied to government activities.

At root, Texas' low recidivism rate mainly stems from the fact that we're over-incarcerating low-risk people to begin with - that many of those folks leaving prison were unlikely to have reoffended even if they'd remained free, and therefore they commit no new crimes when they get out, either. Reserving incarceration for people who pose a significant risk of harming others is a cost-benefit judgement at which the Texas system is not very good.

At present, Texas' system involves a great deal of churn on the low end, especially among drug users, with prisoners entering the system just long enough to receive a life-altering "felon" tag, maybe a prison tat or two and advice from career criminals on how not to get caught next time before being released. Then, on the back end, some elderly prisoners convicted of serious violent crimes are held too long after they no longer pose a big recidvism risk, with their healthcare costs driving up overall costs of incarceration. Both groups contribute to our low recidivism rates, but only because they wouldn't have committed more crimes whether incarcerated or not.

Among some of the good news in the report was the decline in parole revocations for technical violations, which is due mainly to 1) Texas' 2007 reforms, including the creation of intermediate sanctions facilities, and 2) the changing makeup of and decisions by the parole board to reduce incarceration modestly. "In 2006, the Board of Pardons and Paroles revoked over ten thousand offenders. In fiscal year 2015, that number was reduced to about 5500." By contrast, revocations for technical violations on the probation side remain high - about half of all probation revocations.

There's a good discussion in the report of in-prison programming and reentry support services which I won't replicate here but which may interest some readers. In the end, the committee recommended that, "Enhanced funding of Windham and correctional aftercare [for ex-prisoners who received drug and alcohol treatment] should be strongly considered next session." And they suggested that restrictions on occupational licenses for felons should  be reevaluated "to exclude those who have kept a clean record for a certain period of time."

Grits agrees with most of their observations about programming but would only caution to look at the recidivism data with big-picture nuance. If the Legislature stopped incarcerating low-risk offenders who're mainly imprisoned because they're drug addicts, for example, recidivism rates would likely go up over time. But that's only because a low-risk cadre has been removed and the remaining offenders are made up of predominantly higher-risk people. In the context of Texas' specific situation as it relates to over-incarceration, a rise in recidivism rates resulting from decarceration of low-risk offenders wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Smith county is the problem.

Dirk Mudge said...

Grits always has an explanation that puts the corrections system in a bad light. I am not buying it.

What proof can you offer that lower recidivism in Texas is not due to programs offered, etc?

Susanna said...

Ha! Programs offered (through Windham) have been severely affected by budget cuts over the last 8 years, leaving a bare bones budget that seems to shrink every year. And there is plenty of talk about TDCJ taking over all education programs. Honestly, just leave Windham under the purview of TEA, let them do what they do best. Online education might be a good thing in the free world, but I can't think of anything more dangerous than putting thousands of offenders in front of a live, online computer every day.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Dirk, a) the programs are not funded at levels that explain the data - no one thinks that explains it, and b) when you compare Texas' prison pop to other states, it's the low-risk cohort at the bottom-end of the penalty spectrum that we possess and they don't. Of states that do incarcerate at our levels, like Oklahoma, have similarly low recidivism rates. So it's an inference, but also IMO the best explanation for the data.

Steph Wells said...

You obviously know very little about the "programs" they "offer"

Anonymous said...

Sidenote - LBB doesn't count Misd C's in their recidivism report. Counties do not have to report Misd C arrests to DPS, but they can as of 2011, so it would be too inconsistent. LBB defines recidivism as: Adults released from correctional residential facilities or starting supervision were monitored to determine the percentage rearrested for an offense of at least a Class B misdemeanor level within three years of release or the start of supervision (http://www.lbb.state.tx.us/Documents/Publications/Policy_Report/1450_CJ_Statewide_Recidivism.pdf page 2).

wolf sittler said...


Beginning with high fives for Texas being a national leader in criminal justice reform, the authors address multiple issues, from fines to solitary confinement. It's easy to find solid recommendations for providing more services that have been shown to be effective like substance abuse treatment, education, pre-release preparation, etc.

At the same time it is also easy to see that thinking outside the box was not a priority for the authors. There was also no indication of any interest in implementing a notable talking point from the Center for Effective Justice that "Prisons are for people we're afraid of, not the ones we're mad at."

That, in spite of the fact that the report notes that there "is a move from severe punishment model to one that sees individuals with individual problems." If such a move were strengthened the number of people locked up could be reduced dramatically, resulting in fewer prisons, less cost and smaller government.

The authors point to the 4% budget cuts as barriers to reform efforts. They state that since "TDCJ cannot cut back on the security and public components of their mission, it is likely many of the programs that are making a real difference will face the axe." This statement invites this question: How can cutting programs that work increase public safety?

A more rational approach would be to continue funding and strengthening (as recommended) what works while at the same time creating a procedure for releasing ( and monitoring) those who don't pose a danger to public safety. This would save much more than the mandated budget cuts.

One day reason, logic, common sense, and fairness will replace "one size fits all", punishment based, approaches about how to deal with law breakers, One day correctional policy will reflect the will of the majority of Texans who support alternatives to incarceration.....and greater emphasis on the front end of the problem.

At this stage it's not really about public safety...."in the end, it's all about the money, and until the state bears a greater burden of the cost of rehabilitating people, real reform will be difficult."

Anonymous said...

Wolf, you are always 'on-point'. As more and more Texans are involved and knowledgeable about the workings of the TDCJ the more they will support alternatives. If we go on the same track as we are on now, every family in Texas will have a family member that is or has been incarcerated/jailed by the State of Texas. Not a good thing, but we all know that until it affects 'me', I'm not too interested.
IMHO the recidivism rates are high because of the enormous restrictions felons face when released. I'm hopeful they will logically review the current restrictions and make the necessary changes as suggested in the article.

Anonymous said...

An inmate of the prison system doesn't stand a chance after he / she serves their time. With probation and all the rules and regulations thrust upon an inmate (thanks to corrupt DA's & District Courts) they are bleed dry with fees, classes & restrictions. Yes, at the rate of incarcerations, everyone will have a family member in prison and / or with prison record.

Lacie said...

I would agree that we need to invest more into alternative rehabilitation programs for alcohol and drug offenders. I believe we should also do away with minimum sentencing and take a strong look at the availability, cost and quality of attorneys to low income individuals. Instead of lengthy incarcerations for petty crimes such as theft or non-violent crimes, why don't we instead move more towards restitution type punishment. This would make more sense in the long run I feel would be more appropriate than a long prison sentence. I'm obviously a layman and not as well versed at all of this as you all are but being someone who's seen the system and all it's shortcomings from the inside has certainly opened my eyes to how broken our system truly is in Texas and our country as a whole. Why are employers also allowed to discriminate against felons who may have not committed any crime in the last 10-20 years? Shouldn't we be trying to help felons work towards becoming productive members of society? What incentive do they have if they have a felony following them around the rest of their life and can only obtain menial and often poor paying work? I know there is no easy answer to any of this but I can't help but feel incredibly frustrated and like there isn't even any one who is really trying to change anything. It seems that the people with the most say are the people who've never experienced anything remotely close to what it's like to deal with the criminal justice system and that is a real shame.

wolf sittler said...

It is puzzling that the concepts of mercy and forgiveness seem largely absent when it comes to dealing with those who break the law. As we all know, every felony conviction is a life sentence in that present policies offer little in the way of redemption......a conviction creates barriers to employment, housing, loans, etc. Not a recipe for success after leaving prison. That could change if lawmakers created a way to erase the consequences of mistakes made. That would require a shift from the punishment (old testament) model that has been tried for centuries, to one of rehabilitation (new testament).
Up to now most responses to crime have focused on the back end of the problem....after victims (if they are involved) have been impacted. Just as that is necessary, much more emphasis on preventing kids from growing into dysfunctional adults would save huge amounts of taxpayer dollars and lessen the pain of victims, the consequences to offenders and their families, and the cost to taxpayers.
The obstacles to change are many and it is up to those interested in change to work together to make it happen. Complaining and lamenting does nothing to make things better.....but it is a start.

wolf sittler said...

The governor of New York recently pardoned some individuals sentenced as juveniles....a small step in the right direction that prevents a mistake from affecting the rest of life for those convicted of breaking the law.
See the story here....http://www.npr.org/2017/01/10/508369557/after-teenage-mistakes-pardons-give-second-chances-to-ex-offenders

Anonymous said...

Who can we blame for all this recidivism? I find that it never helps to blame the criminal.

Anonymous said...

"all this recidivism," 2:53? You read that it's a lot lower here than other states, right? Grits is calling for reducing incarceration of low risk offenders, thereby increasing recidivism.