Prisoner re-entry: What the Legislature can do

By Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance,

This is the fifth letter in our series of letters providing information and analysis on important public safety topics that will undoubtedly be discussed during the next legislative session. The topic for this letter is reducing crime and changing lives through effective prisoner reentry programs.

On October 1, 2010, Oregon had 14,066 people in prison. 4,080 of these individuals will be released within a year. The more-populated counties have more returnees going to their jurisdictions. For example, approximately 600 released offenders will return to Marion County. Department of Corrections statistics tell us that about 30% of these released offenders will be convicted of a new felony within three years of release. If we add the new misdemeanor convictions such as assault, menacing, theft, etc., the recidivism rate will easily exceed 50% over the three-year period. In addition, thousands of individuals will be released from local jails. Once these individuals commit new crimes, the public safety cycle of arrest, prosecution, and sentencing begins again. There are new crime victims, and the costs of the public safety system are increased.

According to the Governor’s Executive Order No. 07-05 creating the Governor’s Reentry Council in May 2007:

“Offenders are spending longer periods of time incarcerated, yet treatment and educational programs have not kept pace with the growing population. Few inmates receive treatment services that would reduce their risk of re-offense upon release and make Oregon’s communities safer.”

Oregon Reentry Today

In the 2009 legislative session, retired Public Defender Ross Shepard requested, and the Senate Judiciary committee sponsored, Senate Bill 385 which was designed to create pilot resource centers for released offenders in five counties. The Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance and other organizations strongly supported the bill, and it passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously only to die in the Ways and Means Committee. However, the Governor subsequently allocated $1.5 million of discretionary grant dollars to the project. Resource centers in Multnomah, Klamath, and Lane Counties have received grants and have started serving released offenders.

Marion County did not receive any pilot grant money but they have done a magnificent job raising over $2 million and are providing significant services to released offenders. Needless to say, all four of these pilot projects, should they prove successful in changing lives and reducing recidivism, will need additional dollars to keep the good work going. As a practical matter, all 36 Oregon counties have offenders returning to their communities and need financial help in aiding these offenders as they change their lives to become productive members of our society.

The Oregon Reentry Solution:

In late 2009, the Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance contracted with Allain Enterprises Inc. to provide an overview and analysis of re-entry in Oregon. The report is extensive and recommends:

– All of the following need to be fully engaged in the reentry effort in order to achieve success: Corrections systems, law enforcement systems, judicial systems, victim advocate systems, education systems, health care systems, substance abuse and treatment systems, mental health systems, employment and workforce development systems, housing systems, children and family systems, and law makers. Leadership in all systems needs to understand and commit to aligning systems to work together in addressing the issues of reentry.
– Create a messaging campaign that addresses the issues without generating fear and hate. Emotions run high on this topic, and messaging should be respectful to all involved.
– Resources need to be addressed; funding a well managed reentry effort is a wise investment.

Moving the above recommendations forward will require new legislation and the commitment of state resources with much of the money going to counties where significant parts of the re-entry work is completed. For example, Marion County has created a re-entry initiative, complete with a re-entry council, and could use state money effectively in integrating offenders back into the community.

In any legislation passed, it will be critical that an independent scientifically-valid evaluation be conducted. The “gold standard” in this area is rigorous evaluation with randomized samples. Simply put, we need to know if the public money being spent is reducing recidivism and positively changing offenders’ lives. This section is highlighted because it is critical. Continuous independent evaluations of all corrections programs are a must. In addition, the evaluator should not be running the program or supervising the granting of the money. Independence is vital.

Effective reentry programs will save future costs in the criminal justice system and reduce the number of crime victims in Oregon. These programs should receive a high priority in the legislative session because they ultimately save taxpayers’ money, as released offenders do not go through the justice system again, and there are fewer victims needing help.

Just a note: reentry programs are not a substitute for an effective sentencing system that holds offenders accountable. Reentry programs are part of an effective sentencing system that holds offenders accountable and protects the public.

The Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance is committed to reducing crime in Oregon. Effective reentry programs are an important part in this effort. We urge your support.