As the Earth’s most prolific jailer, America faces a thorny question: What do you do with millions of inmates when they return home?
That challenge is at the heart of many bipartisan prison reforms that are sweeping the nation. Georgia recentlytackled this issue. The staunchly Republican state has become a widely recognized national leader in prison reform, creating a network of programs to help inmates when they are behind bars and after they are released.
Georgia’s efforts were spurred by a sober realization: If the Peach State didn’t curtail its convict population, it would have to spend an additional $264 million in the next five years just to house inmates. This amounted to more than the state spends each year on any category other than education and health care.
Facing such formidable costs, Georgia — led by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal — began implementing an array of reforms that helped it begin to lower its spending on corrections. “When you look at the way we have done corrections over the last decade, we’ve been using a very expensive brand of interventions, and in spite of the fact that it’s more expensive, we were getting worse results,” Jay Neal, the former director of the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry in Georgia, said.
Aside from expenses, another factor has driven reform: Social science data prove that inmates can be rehabilitated and set on the road to redemption with education and drug treatment programs that wind up being much cheaper than repeatedly imprisoning the same offenders.
Consider that a total of 17 states — such as Colorado, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, not exactly hotbeds of liberalism — have, in recent years, directed funding away from prison construction and toward “ evidence-based” programs and services that aim to keep ex-offenders from returning to prison.
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently said many of these states have seen drops in recidivism rates and prison populations without harming public safety. For the first time since the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics began tracking the numbers in 1978, the state and federal prison populations both declined in 2014. The total decrease was by more than 15,000 inmates, the second-biggest annual reduction on record, bringing the nation’s prison population to its lowest level since 2005.
“We just know so much more now than we did 20, 30 years ago,” said Deal, noting that Georgia has begun to see a small drop in its recidivism rate. “So we’re making decisions based on a lot more information and a lot more knowledge of the individual — and having a better feel for what kind of outcomes we can expect, based on data and research, instead of just based on the gut feelings, which is unfortunately what a lot of policy was based on, decades ago.”
As most major reformers point out, more than 95 percent of America’s incarcerated eventually return to their communities—600,000 every year. So what happens if there are no jobs or housing awaiting their return? They likely will commit more crime.
For that reason, before he stepped down, Holder directed each of the 93 U.S. Attorneys to designate a prevention and reentry coordinator in his or her district.
With an eye toward helping ex-offenders secure employment, 19 states recently have adopted a policy known as “ ban the box” — prohibiting employers from asking job applicants whether they ever have been convicted of crimes. Those states include California (2010), Colorado (2012) and Delaware (2014), and this year saw the addition of Georgia, New York, Ohio and Virginia.
Reformers in Georgia and elsewhere also have set their sights on rolling back laws barring ex-cons from obtaining licenses in such fields as lawn care, massage therapy, barbering and auto repair. In designing Georgia’s plan, widely praised for its comprehensiveness, Neal said the state borrowed heavily from existing programs in Texas and Michigan.
At the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)’s annual conference last July, one of the largest gatherings of conservative lawmakers, two separate sessions focused on helping states implement cheaper alternatives to incarceration. Nick Wachinski — CEO of Lexington National Insurance Corporation, which underwrites bail bonds — looked across a San Diego hotel ballroom packed with at least 100 conservative state legislators from around the country. When he asked ALEC’s guests how many of them were dealing with jail overcrowding, nearly all of them raised their hands. “If we continue on the path we’re on now, the federal government will run out of money to afford the Bureau of Prisons in 2017,” Wachinski said.