Expert urges renewed focus on rehabilitation
States are spending $52 billion a year on corrections, with one U.S. adult in 31 either incarcerated, on probation, or on parole, according to the Pew Foundation.
The U.S. incarceration rate is by far the highest in the world. Spending on corrections is now the second fastest-growing item in state budgets after Medicaid. It has quadrupled in the past two decades, many say because of a “get tough on crime” approach.
A steady stream of recidivists – returning offenders – is one major drain. As shrinking state budgets demand legislatures to do more with less, scrutiny of the judicial system is increasing.
“It’s high time we start attacking this costly problem at its root, rather than issuing petty punitive sentences for small-time, non-violent crimes,” says advocate Adam Young, founder of CommunityServiceHelp. com. His organization partners with charities to help people fulfill community service sentences by taking classes instead of picking up litter.
“Here is the question: Do we want to punish small-time crimes, or should we offer rehabilitation for people who are caught in this costly cycle?”
In the mid-1970s there was more emphasis on rehabilitation, he says. Less than a decade before that, California introduced the concept of community service to the United States. It has since been widely accepted throughout the nation as a space-saving, cost-cutting solution. It’s time to make community service sentencing more effective, Young says.
“If states really want to save money, they should address recidivism through programs that include education,” he says. “It is better for all of us, for both economic and public safety reasons, to help educate people so they can get and maintain jobs.”
He cites New Jersey’s Female Offender Reentry Group Effort, or FORGE, which became mandatory in Essex County for female parolees in 2006. The program emphasizes legal, job and emotional support, which is particularly helpful for women, experts say.
A four-year study by Rutgers University compared recidivism rates for female parolees who did not experience the program to those who went through FORGE and an additional monthly support group. Only 28 percent of the FORGE graduates returned to prison; nearly half the non-graduates became repeat offenders.
“Citizens become prisoners because they have had trouble integrating with society from the very beginning,” Young says. “Prison without rehab and associated educational programs teaches inmates how to deal with hardened criminals, psychopaths, drug addicts and the mentally ill, but not how to be a productive member of society.”
States with the most recidivism could each save about $470 million a year by reducing rates by just 10 percent, he says.
There is a nationwide push to privatize prisons, which cuts off state funding for various rehabilitation programs that are understood to generally reduce recidivism, Young says. In addition, crowding in prisons is leading to more attention being paid to simply controlling the population, and less to rehabilitation efforts.
Written by Adam Young, an internet marketing professional who launched his educational community service alternative in January 2011. He was inspired by a minor brush with the law when he was an 18-year-old; the community service hours he received cost him his job and nearly caused him to drop out of college. Through his website (www.CommunityServiceHelp.com), offenders have logged more than 300,000 hours of self-scheduled schooling that allows them to remain employed while completing service hours. Young advocates education as the most cost-effective tool for rehabilitating offenders.