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Reducing recidivism: Whose responsibility is it?

Placing blame is really more complex, considering the three-stage continuum of the criminal justice system

As state representatives and senators move deeper into this winter’s legislative sessions, familiar criminal justice topics become fodder for discussion, task force study, and eventually bills for consideration.

A recurring theme has become a broken record echoing in the marble halls of state capitols. Reducing recidivism is a perceived solution to budget-buster agency challenges, and, most of the time, departments of corrections are blamed when recidivism percentages creep upward.

Placing blame is really more complex, considering the three-stage continuum of the criminal justice system: police, courts, and corrections. Within these areas are other mechanisms for supervision, probation, parole, or community corrections.

Furthermore, the rehabilitative measures used to prevent offenders from relapse are the very programs, behind and outside the walls, most often cut during figure-setting.

Legislators appear determined to set arbitrary percentage targets for improvement of recidivism, a shaky goal to be carefully considered before throwing a number on the table.

Clearly, professional researchers, legislators, and the general public have different understandings of recidivism definitions and the characteristics which impact relapse into repetitive criminal behavior. Complicating matters, agencies vary widely in methods of gathering and reporting data, tracking offenders after discharge, and even determining the length of time after release to measure success.

One state’s data may stand out over another’s; drill down, however, and methodologies are rarely equal. Often there is inaccurate reconciliation among states or the federal prison system for counting duplicate offenders. Juvenile offender recidivism numbers are vague, and juveniles adjudicated as adults create additional tracking and reporting dilemmas.

The entire recidivism discussion includes some research findings that marital status and age are two of the most significant factors influencing re-offending behavior. Other factors include education, ability to acquire and maintain employment, housing, and familial support as vital to re-entry success. But determining where resources are best used and adequately measuring related outcomes is fuzzy.

In addition, attempts to prevent re-offending behavior are thwarted by other far-reaching consequences of criminal conviction and incarceration. At release, offenders experience an inability to acquire certain licenses and job permits, which leads to transportation challenges. Negative public perception, exacerbated by the public’s access to arrest records and criminal histories creates additional barriers.

Access to health care and mental health services, as well as on-going substance abuse services, generate more obstacles. Surprisingly, some offenders spend a large portion of their sentence in county jail and so little time in prison they are never enrolled or receive re-entry services prior to almost an immediate release.

Even when all the key elements are aligned appropriately, an offender’s own attitude, sense of willingness, and motivation may sabotage all other efforts.

Criminal justice entities share a vigorous interest in preventing offenders from relapsing, and in all fairness, a multi-disciplinary approach to the prevention of recidivism should equal multi-disciplinary blame when recidivism rates quiver. Re-entry is a complex series of processes which are mutually dependant, and even the best researchers are unable to agree on a universal definition of terms. Legislatures may want to study and start there.

Cherrie Greco is a retired correctional administrator and consultant, having provided technical assistance to a number of criminal justice agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, and the states of Colorado, Texas, Florida, Maine, Alabama, Connecticut and Oklahoma on the topics of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Amendment Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act. During her career with the Colorado Department of Corrections, she served as Director of Administration, Warden, Legislative Liaison, and Director of Staff Training. In recent years, Greco served as a Senior Consultant for MGT of America and was the Director of Probation for Oklahoma County. She earned a B.A., Ed. from Northwestern Oklahoma State University and an M.A., Ed. from Lesley University, Cambridge, MA. Ms. Greco resides in Oklahoma. She has been a columnist for CORRECTIONSONE since 2011.