Ohio taxpayers saving millions as fewer ex-cons return to prison

Ohio leader in reducing recidivism among inmates, experts say

Ohio’s recidivism rate hit 28.7 percent for inmates released in 2009, down from 39.5 percent for inmates released in 2003. Nationally, the recidivism rate is about 45 percent. The data lags because it measures the number of inmates returned to prison within three years for committing a new crime or violating the terms of parole.

“Ohio has a very impressive drop in recidivism that can be directly tied to the types of programming and assessments that work. It is very genuine,” said David D’Amora, director of the Council of State Governments’ National Initiatives and its National Re-Entry Resource Center. “Ohio is clearly a leader in the field.”

Internal one-year rate data collected by the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction seems to promise further reductions are in the offing, said Linda Janes, DRC chief of staff.

“Realistically, there is a point where you plateau but you need to think you can always do better and I think we will do better. I think it’s the most important job we have is to push that recidivism rate down,” Janes said.

Cutting the rate from 39 percent five years ago to 28.7 percent now translates into at least $14 million in annual savings. For each inmate who doesn’t return, the state saves $23,800, plus long-term costs of building more prisons, and there are fewer Ohioans being victimized by crime.

In recent years, Ohio and other states have been embracing reforms designed to help prisoners successfully re-enter society, reduce the number of non-violent and low-risk offenders going into prison and manage more offenders in less expensive community-based settings. All of those reforms impact recidivism.

“It really is a systemic approach and that’s why we are so successful. There is no silver bullet. There is no panacea. It has to be a multi-faceted approach,” Janes said.

In recent years, Ohio has changed its laws and policies to accomplish the following:

* Punish non-violent offenders in alternate settings;

* Assess the risks and needs for each offender so they’re placed in the right prison and get the most effective counseling or other programs;

* Use evidence-based programs that research shows work;

* Establish re-entry coalitions in 59 counties to support ex-inmates who are returning home;

* Reorganize prisons into three tiers – control for those who misbehave, general population for most, and reintegration for those close to release;

* Provide more job training and support, such as resume writing;

* Help inmates get state IDs or valid driver’s licenses before they are released;

* Help inmates who owe back child support to set up realistic payment plans;

* Eliminate legal barriers to employment in a variety of fields.

For example, Ohio recently eliminated a lot of “collateral sanctions” – extra punishments tied to criminal laws such as revoking a driver’s license for unpaid child support or barring ex-cons from holding commercial driver’s licenses, working in junkyards or holding jobs as barbers or optometry technicians.

Now, DRC has a truck driver training program at Pickaway Correctional Institution and Richland Correctional Institution. Inmates are trained, receive a commercial driver’s licenses, and are guaranteed a job by PI&I Motor Express when released.

Ohio has one of the lowest rates among similar size states and it’s getting some attention. Late last year, Idaho sent its corrections executives to learn from Ohio and in April, the top leadership of the federal Bureau of Prisons is slated to visit.

The potential savings are staggering. The Pew Center on the States reported that if 10 states reduced their recidivism rates by 10 percent, they could save $470 million in a single year.

Nationwide, spending on corrections soared to $50.8 billion in 2010, up from $16.5 billion in 1985, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. In Ohio, corrections spending climbed from $314.3 million in 1985 to $1.7 billion today, according to the Legislative Service Commission. Driving the spending have been “tough-on-crime” laws that are politically popular but financially costly. Now, policy makers have shifted to being smarter on crime and punishment.

“There thinking is totally different than it was 10 years ago. The change has been almost a warp speed over the last six or seven years,” D’Amora said. “We used to think if we locked people up that would solve the problem or if we locked people up longer that would solve the problem. The data shows that isn’t necessarily true.”

Public opinion is on the side of these reforms as well, said Adam Gelb, Director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Trusts.

“The conventional wisdom is that everyone wants to lock them up and throw away the key but our research, in fact, shows people are tired of the revolving door and they want it to stop,” Gelb said. A national poll released in January 2012 found that 87 percent of Americans agree that the length of a prison sentence for a non-violent offender matters less than having a system in place to prevent recidivism. And 67 percent of voters prefer that inmates be subject to supervision when they get out of prison, even if it means less time behind bars, the poll found.

Just in the last two years, DRC Director Gary Mohr convinced lawmakers to pass criminal sentencing reforms in 2011 and eliminate a slew of collateral sanctions in 2012. These changes have yet to show up in the three-year recidivism rates.

“Over the years, we’ve gotten better at it and our approaches have become more sophisticated and comprehensive,” Janes said.

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