Saturday, January 22, 2011

Rosenberg on Reentry: The Importance of Peers and Good Programs

In two recent NYT blog posts, Pulitzer prize awardee Tina Rosenberg reflects on the conditions for successful prisoner reentry.

Rosenberg's first blog post mentions the meager release packages for inmates exiting correctional institutions and the lack of rehabilitative programs, but emphasizes the need to provide them with "a better class of friends": People committed to AA meetings and GED classes, who will motivate them rather than drag them down the recidivist path. She mentions two programs: The Castle in New York, and San Francisco's Delancey Street Foundation. Here is some of what she has to say about the latter:

People come to live at the Delancey Street residential building for an average of four years. Each resident is required to get at least a high school equivalency degree and learn several marketable job skills, such as furniture making, sales or accounting. The organization is completely run by its residents, who teach each other — there is no paid staff at all. Teaching others is part of the rehabilitation process for Delancey residents. The residence is financed in part by private donations, but the majority of its financing comes from the businesses the residents run, such as restaurants, event planning, a corporate car service, a moving company and framing shop. All money earned goes to the collective, which pays all its residents’ expenses.

. . .

The Delancey Street residence, which began in 1971, has never been formally evaluated. But there is no question that is phenomenally successful. It has graduated more than 14,000 people from prison into constructive lives. Carol Kizziah, who manages Delancey’s efforts to apply its lessons elsewhere, says that the organization estimates that 75 percent of its graduates go on to productive lives. (For former prisoners who don’t go to Delancey, only 25 to 40 percent avoid re-arrest.) Since it costs taxpayers nothing, from a government’s point of view it could very well be the most cost-effective social program ever devised. The program has established similar Delancey Street communities in Los Angeles, New Mexico, North Carolina and upstate New York. Outsiders have replicated the Delancey Street model in about five other places.

. . .

There are two puzzles here. Delancey Street is now celebrating its 40th anniversary. One would think that by now there would be Delancey 2.0 models sprouting all over. But there are not. A related mystery concerns the idea that underlies both Delancey and the Castle: the importance of pro-social peers. Our guts tell us they matter; we know the effect our friends can have on our behavior. Peer pressure may be the single most important factor getting people into crime — surely it should be employed to get them out again. Yet it is not. Besides Delancey and the Castle, there is probably not a single government agency or citizen group working with former prisoners that lists “clean-living peers” alongside housing, job training and other items on its agenda for what former prisoners need to go straight.

The second blog post expands upon the reasons for reentry failure. Citing David Kirk's interesting research on the decline in recidivism following Hurricane Katrina, Rosenberg points out how important it is to maintain places that provide support and encounters with reentering peers. She mentions initiatives like Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, and attributes their inadequate-to-nonexistent funding to "tough on crime" political rhetoric and to lack of research showing the decline in recidivism. However, there are grounds for hope, including humonetarianism (a discourse of scarcity that creates a countereffect to punitive policies) -- the silver lining of the financial crisis:

The good news is that we may have reached a turning point, a chance at last to see effective anti-crime policies edge out ineffective ones. One reason is the record number of people being released from prison. This has made prisoner re-entry a hot topic in the field of corrections (if still invisible to the rest of the world). The politics, too, have changed. The crime rate throughout the United States has dropped, which means that voters are less panicked about crime and less singleminded about harsh measures.

The public isn’t thinking about crime — but state officials are. States are in budget crisis. Many states are looking for ways to let nonviolent prisoners out — and they can’t afford to see them come back again. California’s three strikes law — your third felony conviction, even if for something minor, brings a 25-year-to-life prison term — is costing the state $500 million a year, according to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Those costs will rise as the prison population ages as a consequence of the law — housing elderly prisoners can cost upwards of $50,000 per year per inmate. And elderly prisoners are the last people you want in prison, as they are the least likely to re-offend. States are finally getting interested in finding out what actually maximizes the chance that ex-offenders will become good citizens. They’re not going to be able to do that without financing research.

Rosenberg's posts are a call to conduct empirical research on the recidivism-related implications of reentry programs. As we know, recidivism reports are very problematic. The dismal numbers in CDCR's recidivism report do not necessarily reflect a "return to a life of crime" as much as they might reflect parole failures and technical parole violations (an aspect regarding which the Supreme Court has recently exhibited surprising naïvete). As this good summary from the NIJ website explains, recidivism is a difficult thing to measure. Studies examining the impact of reentry programs and changes in peer groups on recidivism should be careful in their findings. Assuming such problems can be tackled, funding should be provided to programs with proven effects on recidivism rates, such as the marine technology and carpentry training programs at CDCR.

Props to Michael Sierchio for the link.

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