Recidivism revisited: Department of Corrections data targets good goal

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It used to be that conservative politicians were all about locking up criminals and throwing away the key. While nobody can accuse Gov. Tom Corbett -- a former state attorney general and federal prosecutor -- of going soft on crime, his administration has shown a broader willingness to help the Department of Corrections do its job more efficiently.

With the help of a thoughtful and proactive secretary of corrections, John Wetzel, the department has set its sights on cutting recidivism rates by offering financial incentives to community corrections facilities. The problem with the Department of Corrections is that it doesn't do a good job of correcting inmates enough to turn them from their criminal ways.

According to a report released by the department last week that taps data going back to the year 2000, approximately six in 10 released inmates are either rearrested or reincarcerated within three years of release from prison. About 10 percent of all police arrests involve released state inmates. And per capita arrest rates for violent crimes are 14 times higher among released inmates than the general public.

Such statistics would be depressing enough but for the state these outcomes impose a financial burden. According to the report, the department can save taxpayers $44.7 million annually by reducing the one-year reincarceration rate by 10 percentage points.

In trying to cut these costs while doing some good for society, the Department of Corrections looks to community corrections facilities to improve their performance -- and the data in last week's report will provide a baseline for future comparisons. To keep their contracts with the state, which are being rebid, community corrections centers must meet at least the minimum recidivism rate of 60 percent. If facilities are able to reduce offense rates by 10 percent, they will get paid more per offender.

And how will they do this? With the help of Act 122 and Act 196, which together last year put flesh on the bones of the governor's Justice Reinvestment Initiative recommendations. The laws, a bipartisan effort that passed both chambers unanimously, made changes to the law such as expanding the eligibility of intermediate punishment for an offense involving drugs and alcohol, helping parole violators in most cases to be returned to community corrections centers rather than state prison and banning offenders convicted of certain misdemeanors from being sentenced to state prison.

Moves to cut recidivism rates are a smart, natural follow-up to those reforms.

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