by James A. Bacon
It costs roughly $25,000 a year on average to incarcerate people in jails and prisons across Virginia — totaling more than $1 billion a year for the state Department of Corrections and hundreds of millions more for local governments. One of the few things upon which everyone can agree is that state and local governments could save a big heap of money if they did a better job of reintegrating felons into productive society when they finish serving their time.
A wide variety of government and not-for-profit programs endeavor to help. The problem is, the quality of programs varies widely and it is very difficult to say objectively which ones are effective and deserve more funding, and which ones are worthless and deserve to be terminated.
One program, Kingdom Life Ministries (KLM), which focuses on Richmond City Jail inmates battling substance abuse, had a recidivism rate of only 34%, far lower than the average rate for the jail, concluded Sarah Scarbrough, a Virginia Commonwealth University Ph.D., on the basis of her dissertation research. KLM establishes a relationship with the inmates while in jail, sets concrete goals for reintegrating them into society, and helps them carry out those goals in a strictly regulated halfway-house setting. A key distinguishing feature is the participant’s reliance upon their peers, not just mental health professionals, in supporting them through trying times.
By contrast, Scarbrough told me in an interview, other inmates enter halfway houses that maintain no structure or discipline. “There are as much drugs and prostitution there as on the street!” And in all probability, the recidivism rate at those facilities is much higher.
Virginia is not keeping pace with other states like Oregon, Michigan, Missouri and Tennessee, which have implemented evidence-based practices to drive down recidivism. In Virginia, state programs do not conduct wide-scale evaluations on a regular basis, says Scarbrough. Not-for-profits typically don’t have the resources to do so.
While every program can cite anecdotal stories and offer cherry-picked data, their statistics are often based upon small samples or calculated differently. “These circumstances make it difficult to create a large enough collection of data to deduce well-supported conclusions,” she wrote in the executive summary of her dissertation.
An example of how difficult it is making comparisons: KLM’s recidivism rate of 34% compares to 44% for the Richmond city jails as a whole. The performance gap actually is far bigger than suggested by those numbers, says Scarbrough. The jail’s rate includes only re-arrests in the city. If an inmate were arrested in Henrico or Chesterfield, he wouldn’t be counted as a recidivist.
Also, according to the Virginia Performs website, there are different definitions for recidivism. Some definitions count all offenses, including technical offenses, while others only count when people are convicted of a new crime. Different definitions cover different lengths of time. And there are variations when recidivism tracking begins — when the offender is still in a correctional environment, or after release.
Many, if not most, inmates have problems with substance abuse, and if their drug and alcohol usage is not addressed, they have a greater likelihood of committing a crime. Just as no one is comparing the effectiveness of reentry initiatives, no one is comparing how effectively the state is spending millions of dollars on substance-abuse initiatives, Scarbrough says.
Bottom line: Virginia authorities are wandering in a statistical fog. It is impossible for to efficiently allocate scarce public and philanthropic dollars without good data. Before we spend more money on new jails and prisons, perhaps we should invest in developing a system for tracking the effectiveness of substance-abuse and reentry programs. It would cost more up-front but would pay tangible, measurable dividends within a few years.
Based on her research, Scarbrough argues that KLM, where she now serves on the board, saved the commonwealth $7 million in reduced prison expenditures and nearly $1 million in reduced expenses for emergency medical treatment of inmates over the 3.5-year study period. Extrapolated across all of Virginia’s jails and prisons, she says, the potential exists to save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars yearly — and to turn hundreds of inmates into contributing members of society.