By Andrew Crutchfield, Special Projects Analyst, California Common Sense
Unfortunately, history tells us that in California, the majority of prisoners will reoffend after their release from prison. These reoffenders ultimately cost their community even more in terms of both crime and incarceration costs.
Howard Hussock, Director of the Manhattan Institute’s Social Entrepreneurship Initiative, argues that quickly placing ex-offenders in jobs is the most successful means of reducing recidivism. In this interview, he argues that programs for ex-offenders should focus on employment prior to even drug treatment or job training. He also discusses the barriers those ex-offenders face when attempting to successfully reenter society. The Manhattan Institute is currently working with Newark, New Jersey’s Mayor Cory Booker to test the approach in that city.
You say that prisoners face problems upon release from prison. What are some common problems?
It is surprising the mundane and practical problems prisoners emerging from incarceration encounter. The fact that they don’t have a good job history, they may lack education, they may have substance abuse problems, they obviously have a criminal record, and that can sort of bar them from certain kinds of employment.
I think those kinds of barriers are actually well known, but there are many more mundane problems as well. Many [ex-offenders] do not have practical forms of government identification. Many owe tremendous, really debilitating amounts of child support payments, which have increased during their time in prison and create a situation where they are likely to have wages garnished by government authorities even if they are lucky enough to get a job. And many typically do not have homes immediately to return to. Many of them have back traffic tickets that can cause their parole to be revoked.
There are a tremendous number of really mundane issues that are not addressed by corrections authorities, who don’t see it as their role to oversee a successful reentry [into society], but rather to focus on keeping correctional institutions themselves safe.
Newark, New Jersey focuses first on employment for released offenders. Why do you argue that makes sense?
Getting a job can help organize your life so that you have a motivation to improve your skills and make the right choices more generally. What’s the alternative? The alternative has been pursued by numerous programs, and it seems to make sense: let’s get training for a job, let’s make sure you are free of substance abuse problems. But you obviously aren’t going to be hired for a job if you are an active drug user anyway.
The job training and preparation route is a very tempting one. But it turns out there are a great many – even in this terrible economy – relatively low-skilled jobs where, if you just show up, you can begin to build a job life for yourself.
For instance, I recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal about somebody who had been in prison most of his adult life. But he was able, because he was willing to work the night shift picking up garbage and showed up reliably for a year, to earn more than $60,000 a year with the prospect that, if he gets an enhanced drivers’ license, to earn $100,000 a year with overtime. And so starting with a job – any job – can help organize your life and give you motivation to make other self improvements. And to get the self-respect to reunite with family members and perhaps children that can help bind you to a socially constructive community.
What reductions in recidivism can we expect from these programs?
I think our expectations should be modest. The Manhattan Institute has been involved in with working with Mayor Corey Booker in Newark, having set up a network of social service providers (as the jargon goes) to help [ex-offenders] and to report to the mayor’s office about their success or lack of it. I think it’s possible to imagine reductions from levels of 50% to 60% recidivism, which are typical over three years, down to 20% to 30%. I think you don’t want to exaggerate the possibilities. It’s not going to get to ten [percent], it’s not going to get to zero. But I think it is possible to reduce it to 20% to 30%.
How costly are these programs? Has anyone managed to construct any sort of measure of return on investment?
I’m not aware of that. I’m not sure. There are so many ways. I understand that is a fashionable idea in nonprofit circles, and there is some validity to it. Obviously the most important return on investment is one of avoided costs. And so, you know, when you are looking at $60,000 to $90,000 per prisoner, per year and I bet it’s higher in California.
The savings are just very low hanging fruit, so everyone who is not going back to prison is a huge savings because not only are you avoiding costs, but suddenly you are paying into the social security system. Right? You are a taxpayer. And so I don’t think it really takes a deep dive analysis to realize that programs that may cost $2,500-$3,000 per person, per year are a good return on investment.
What would you say to someone who thinks that already enough money is spent on prisoners and is hesitant to spend more?
I don’t think we should spend more at all. I think we would be able to spend less if we spent the money that we are already spending on a more effective way. That should be the goal.