Expert: 1-percent cut in recidivism could save state millions

September 26, 2013

The state could save millions of dollars simply by reducing recidivism rates by 1 percent, a public policy expert told lawmakers Thursday.

That’s money that could be used for mental health, addiction and education programs that could help inmates when they are released from prison into communities, said Roger Jarjoura, a researcher at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute.

Jarjoura was talking to the Sentencing Policy Study Committee, which heard a day of testimony about recidivism and community-based justice programs.

He told the committee about a 2012 study he conducted to learn more about the costs of recidivism in Marion County. It found that 51.6 percent of inmates released by the Department of Correction to Marion County returned to prison within three years.

If that rate could be cut by just 1 percent – a reduction of just 46 people returning to prison – the state would have saved $1.55 million in incarceration costs.

“What could we do to keep 46 people from going back to prison?” Jarjoura asked lawmakers. “What could we do with $1.5 million to keep 46 people from going back to prison?”

The questions are important for lawmakers as they study the impact of a sentencing reform law the General Assembly approved earlier this year. The new system will move Indiana’s system of four felony classes to one that has six felony levels. It also requires offenders to serve 75 percent of their sentences instead of the 50 percent currently required.

Some drug and theft crimes will carry lighter sentences than under the current system and many of those offenders are expected to be pushed out of prison and into community-based programs.

The study committee is tasked with looking into those impacts and making suggestions for changes to the legislature before its 2014 session begins in January.

Jarjoura told lawmakers that the IU Public Policy Institute will complete a statewide study of the existing programs in place in communities, the anticipated need for additional programs, and what other states are doing well. That study is to be finished by early December so it can be incorporated into the study group’s recommendations.

He said several states – most notably Texas and Michigan – have been successful implementing “justice reinvestment” programs. Those involve estimating the costs of additional incarceration, including new prisons, and using the money instead for programs meant to keep people out of prison or from returning to prison after release.

Paula Smith, an assistant professor at the Center for Criminal Justice Research at the University of Cincinnati, told the committee that it’s more important that they do local programming well than it is that they do it at all.

She said research has shown that punishments or penalties alone are not useful in convincing people released from prison not to reoffend. In fact, researchers have found that sanctions alone can actually increase recidivism by 3 percent, while human services program can reduce recidivism by 12 percent. She said quality programs will help even more.

The key, Smith said, is focusing intensive programs on those who need more intervention “gets you a payoff.” But she said putting lower risk offenders into intensive programs will have the opposite effect, in part because they come into contact with more hardened criminals.

Niles Hall is one of those offenders who needed more intervention – and he got it from the Project Care program at Centerstone, a not-for-profit group in Bloomington. Hall told lawmakers he was a heroin addict who had been in and out of prison. But he said Project Care gave him the attention and services he needed to get back on track.

Now he works at the center as a peer recovery specialist.

“I came here so you guys could put a face to this demographic you’ve been talking about all morning,” he told the committee.

The sentencing study committee is scheduled to meet again on Oct. 8.

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