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Post-Prison Reform


Post-Prison Reform

June 15, 2003
Urban PolicyCrime

CUTTING recidivism is the next frontier in crime reduction. As discussed last Sunday, there is no shortage of 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.

It’s time to Compstat corrections.

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 warden’s 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 I heard many tales of corrections-officer-tolerated 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 numbers — the rates of documentation and of placement in job activities — would be part of the prison oversight process.

Parole - in the sense of post-release supervision — is another wide-open opportunity for reform. Parole’s primary responsibility is to prevent offenders from recommitting crime, by monitoring a parolee’s 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.”

BENJAMIN’S 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 doesn’t 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 parolees — or 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 example — whom 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 won’t know what hit him. “The best medicine for these guys is to be busy 24/7,” observes Raul Russi, a former New York City probation commissioner and ex-head of the state’s 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 nation’s first work program for ex-offenders. “But with the offender population, shortcuts are their problem, structure is their problem. Being someplace at 9 a.m. every day, it’s 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-offender’s 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 condition — largely, they explain, because few judges will send anyone back to prison for not working. As a result, only 53 percent of parolees in New York City are working now. 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.

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, but in fact ex-offenders’ personal connections play an equal role in keeping them out of trouble.

Fear of disappointing a mentor can be an enormous motivator. University of Pennsylvania criminologist Byron Johnson recalls asking one ex-con how he had stayed out of prison. The reply: “My mentor used to come in the middle of the night if I needed a ride to a job interview — I couldn’t let him down.”

That ex-offender 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 don’t know whether this success comes mainly from the prison’s Christian aspect 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 can’t have nine children with eight different girlfriends,’ I tell them. ’You can’t 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 safety — if every re-arrest prompts them to deep analysis of what went wrong — we might in short order see some startling innovations in post-conviction crime control.