By John Wetzel and Heidi Washington
One of the most significant developments in criminal justice policy over the past 15 years has been the fundamental shift in thinking about the primary purpose of prisons and jails.
Not long ago, corrections administrators saw their main responsibility as essentially ensuring the people they supervise didn’t jump the wall.
Our focus was the care, custody and control of the people inside our facilities. What happened upon their release was out of our hands.
We define success much differently today: Reducing the likelihood of someone reoffending once they’re released is a core objective of corrections administrators across the country. We now recognize that pursuing anything short of this objective compromises public safety and wastes taxpayer dollars.
This shift began taking root on a national level in 2004, when President George W. Bush declared America “the land of second chances” during his State of the Union address, insisting that “when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.”
Congress then set to work on the Second Chance Act, which the House and Senate passed in 2008 with overwhelming bipartisan support. With that legislation, elected officials made clear that ensuring the safe and successful transition from prison and jail to the community wasn’t a partisan issue, but simply good, smart policy.
Thirteen years since Bush’s clarion call, and nearly a decade since the enactment of the Second Chance Act, it is time for a critical question: How has the field of corrections changed, and what difference has that made?
Some states can point to data showing clear reductions in measures of recidivism — the likelihood of offenders to commit another crime after their release — to try to illustrate an impact. A new report from The Council of State Governments Justice Center and the National Reentry Resource Center highlighted examples of seven states that have significant reductions in recidivism, including Michigan, Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Colorado and Arizona.
But states are very different, and one of the many differences is the way in which they measure and define that progress. The same is true for jurisdictions across the country. Because of this, it is difficult to compare trends from one jurisdiction to the next, or establish a reliable national examination of recidivism trends.
But another new report released last week highlights key ways in which state and local governments’ approach to reentry and recidivism reduction is fundamentally different today than it was 15 years ago. They include:
- Making recidivism reduction a core part of corrections administrators’ missions;
- Enlisting a remarkably diverse set of constituencies in making a person’s transition from prison to the community safe and successful; and
- Dramatically improving and applying the science of what works to reduce recidivism.
Much more needs to be done to realize the vision of ensuring a successful transition from prison. Just like other ambitious goals that local, state and federal leaders embraced long before setting their sights on reducing recidivism — such as reducing teenage pregnancy or improving high school graduation rates — full success will require decades of work.
The improvements we’re seeing in states have been aided by Second Chance Act grants. Those grants have helped us implement practices in our local agencies and courts that improve outcomes for people under community supervision, establish employment training programs in our prisons to prepare people for technology-based jobs upon release, improve pre- and post-release care for people with mental illnesses and co-occurring substance use disorders and provide people with pre- and post-release mentoring and transition services, among other things.
Overall, Second Chance Act grants have been awarded to agencies and organizations in 49 states and the District of Columbia, ultimately serving more than 137,000 people. Having Congress reauthorize this legislation is crucial to helping states continue on the productive path they are on.
As we look forward to the next phase of this work and continuing to reduce recidivism rates, we must maintain the critical support for these reentry programs. We’ve made remarkable strides nationally in our collective effort to ensure that when a person leaves prison or jail they don’t return.
We can’t turn back now.
John Wetzel (@johnewetzel) is the chair of The Council of State Governments Justice Center, vice-chair of the Association of State Correctional Administrators and director of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections.
Heidi Washington (@HeidiWashington) is the director of Michigan’s Department of Corrections and an executive committee member of the Association of State Correctional Administrators.