Integrated Family Community Services 3370 South Irving Street, Englewood, CO 80110-1816 Ph: 303-789-0501

Improving Communities with Inmate and Ex-offender Services

Very few people react positively to the idea that there might be ex-cons in their community. This attitude is shared not only by members of that community, but by businesses and even government organizations. People who leave the prison system become ineligible for all sorts of programs, assistance, and jobs, finding themselves separated from society still.

This is, arguably, a major cause of recidivism, but the idea of recidivism itself is also a problematic one. After all, the main reason people don’t react well to released convicts is that very narrative: that they are likely to reoffend. Well, it turns out the statistics might be flawed, that recidivism isn’t as common as reported. So on one hand we have new data suggesting that prisoners reoffend at much lower rates when released than originally thought. On the other hand, the very social shunning caused by panic over recidivism could be a major contributing factor to its existence in the first place. A self-fulfilling prophecy.

Opponents of prison reform and social programs for inmates and ex-cons have long cited the high recidivism rates as evidence that those programs don’t work. If the evidence that has been coming to light over the last few years proves true, then those arguments are demonstrably false. In which case we need more programs, better programs — both in and out of prison — to ensure that people have an entry point back into society when they’re released. After all, a rehabilitated criminal is a benefit to everyone: they start paying taxes instead of requiring taxes to house and feed. If they don’t reoffend, then they don’t create any more victims.

In-Prison Programming: Preparing Prisoners to Re-enter Society

The work of preventing recidivism begins before a person leaves prison. Many people turn to crime because, for any myriad reasons, they cannot survive in conventional society. Sending someone to prison as a punishment may not prove as a deterrent if, when they return to society, they still don’t have the skills and tools to survive.

Research done by government agencies has shown that vocational and skills training programs give prisoners a better chance of success when they leave the system. On the other hand, it seems that almost half of prisoners in the U.S. don’t have access specifically to vocational programs. More academic programs are no doubt useful, but vocational programs have a direct impact on a person’s ability to land on their feet once they leave the system.

Examining Biases in Candidate Selection

One issue facing training, rehabilitation and integration efforts is that the more someone needs help, the more difficult these efforts become. It’s easy for corrections staff and therapists to focus on the people who they feel have the highest chances of success. According to the University of Cincinnati:

“Historically, community corrections staff have preferred to work with low-risk offenders because they are much easier to manage than are high-risk offenders (Bonta, 2000; Wormith and Olver, 2002). This preference has been observed in other professional arenas and persists despite the knowledge that indicates the opposite is desirable.”

In short, it’s easier to work with low-risk offenders, and they’re more attractive to work with. However, high-risk offenders are in greater need of services, and targeting these high-risk offenders is the best use of resources. Offenders who are more attractive to work with will have a naturally easier time adjusting, and need less help.

This also applies once an offender leaves the prison system. Those in need of the most help to adjust are often least likely to be able to find work, housing, and access to services designed to help them. Someone leaving prison does have options when it comes to getting help truly re-integrating, but those options are limited. Much of the work to be done is re-evaluating the way we prioritize services and help, because those who we believe are the least likely to succeed are the ones who need the most help.

Decriminalization to Reduce Recidivism

Some states, like Oregon, are working to decriminalize drug use as part of an effort to reduce incarceration rates among people who commit non-violent drug crimes. The idea is to focus on getting those people treatment to help them kick their addictions, rather than enter them into the prison system. If they can be helped to recovery before their spirals reach rock-bottom, non-violent drug offenders can avoid prison time and gain the skills and resources they need to survive.

Giving non-violent drug offenders access to recovery services, preventative healthcare services for the high-risk activities they engage in, and community support is active crime prevention, as opposed to crime punishment. Not everyone agrees that it’s the best way to approach dealing with drug offenders, but there’s a compelling argument to be made for its effectiveness in preventing crime, helping communities, and reducing strain on the prison system.

The argument poses that putting people in prison for non-violent offenses can create violent offenders, and only worsen the addiction issues that they face. Helping an offender through a recovery process, however, benefits everyone. It benefits the offender, their families, and society as a whole. It costs taxpayers a lot less for recovery programs than creating another inmate.

Solving Recidivism May Require Changing Our Thinking

Helping the most people as effectively as possible may require us to make some changes to our thinking that seem counter-intuitive. The candidates for training, work, education and community resources who are most likely to succeed may not be the ones who actually need the help. Reducing recidivism needs to be approached from multiple angles if we seek widespread success, lower incarceration rates and low crime rates. A great start is reducing the number of people who are forced out of society when the right help could prevent them from ever committing violent offenses, and allocating more resources to people who are the most “undesirable” from a social standpoint.

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Integrated Family Community Services is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

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IFCS’ Tax ID # 84-0579740