I’ve worked in Corrections for more than 10 years now, working in a transitional halfway house for women offenders. I’ve seen the worst of the worst and the best of the best in that time. I’ve watched women who were dealt pretty terrible hands in life turn their circumstances around and go on to lead productive, respectable lives. But more often I’ve watched the revolving door of repeat offenders who wind up back in custody within a short amount of time. So why do some succeed and others fail so miserably? I think it comes down to more than just the fault of the individual.
Recidivism is a concept that “refers to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior” (National Institute of Justice). And the statistics are pretty staggering. The Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted a study of more than 400,000 prisoners. Of those, 67.8% were rearrested within 3 years. That number only increases as the years increase, with 76.6% being rearrested within 5 years. It would appear from these numbers that simply being released from prison puts you at high risk for being rearrested, but I think the issue is much more intricate than that.
Support for Ex-Offenders is Necessary
There are a lot of things that need to happen in order for an ex-offender to stay away from the lifestyle that landed them in prison to begin with. First, they need a desire to stay out of prison. That is one factor that is affected solely by the individual and cannot be forced. Someone who has no motivation or will to change, won’t. Simple as that. But that desire alone won’t get the job done. Ex-offenders need to have their basic needs in order to be able to resist the temptation to resort back to their old ways. It is a priority to ensure that their health, mental health, housing, and income are stable before the ex-offenders are left to fend for themselves. Unfortunately, this isn’t always what happens. An analysis conducted by Anthony C. Thompson, a professor of law at New York University School of Law, indicated that a large number of ex-offenders are released “without any form of oversight after having completed their sentences fully.” These offenders have to worry about trying to re-establish themselves in a community that fostered their criminal behaviors to begin with. Oftentimes these offenders are so focused on meeting the immediate need of food and shelter, that they are not able to take care of their other basic needs. Thompson concludes that, “Instead of expecting individual ex-offenders to navigate their transitions back into their communities without help, the legal community needs to give them the tools that might better guarantee success.”
More Support for Offenders Can Decrease Recidivism
Rather than release offenders without any supervision or support, perhaps a better solution is earlier releases with supervision that is designed to support the offenders in their reestablishment. Traditional supervised release statuses are structured as punishment, not support. Sure, there are great parole officers who take it upon themselves to help their offenders, but it is not their official function. Perhaps if we change the way we approach the situation, offering more supportive services, we can change the outcome and reduce recidivism.