Pennsylvania will offer incentives to combat recidivism

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Based on a new study that shows high recidivism rates in Pennsylvania, state officials will offer financial incentives to community corrections facilities to improve their performance.

The report released Thursday, which includes data going back to 2000, shows that statewide, the percentage of people who commit new crimes or are sent back to prison for parole violations is 59.9 percent.

In Allegheny County, that number is 61.9 percent, ranking third behind Dauphin and Philadelphia counties.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, who oversees the criminal division, said that rate is disheartening.

"We call it the Department of Corrections, and apparently, it's not correcting anything," he said.

The judge said the most important things in reducing recidivism include drug and alcohol and mental health treatment, as well as job training.

"There are only two answers to a 60 percent recidivism rate," Judge Manning said. "And those are to release an improved inmate into society or keep them all locked up forever. And the first one is cheaper than the second."

In his introduction to the report, Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel said that under the Corbett administration, the focus to reduce crime will be driven by data and quantifiable results.

"Citizens of the Commonwealth should have every expectation of a corrections system that actually helps people correct themselves; one that is based on research, not on anecdotal stories and innuendo," he wrote.

Moving forward, the results of the recidivism study will be used as a benchmark to measure the success of programs, said Bret Bucklen, the director of planning, research and statistics for the state Department of Corrections.

For example, under new legislation passed last year, those facilities billed as "community corrections centers," are having their contracts rebid this year.

Using the recidivism report as a baseline, the facilities that win contracts must meet at least the minimum recidivism rate -- 60 percent -- to continue their relationship with the state.

"They'll be required to maintain that baseline and will be incentivized if they reduce [recidivism,]" Mr. Bucklen said.

If a facility is able to reduce reoffense rates by 10 percent, it will get paid more per offender.

"We want to measure performance. We want quantifiable performance," Mr. Bucklen said.

The measurements will be conducted by the state, which will collect and compare all data.

The new contracts being awarded are for three years, and the first measurement will be done after one year, Mr. Bucklen said.

"We want to force the system to think hard on how to reduce the recidivism rate."

In Pennsylvania, there are 4,313 beds available in community corrections centers, sometimes characterized as half-way houses. In Allegheny County, there are 581.

Although these facilities have long been used to help transition people leaving prisons back into society, they are now also being used to house parole violators, instead of sending those people directly back into a state institution, Mr. Bucklen said.

"Research has shown in other places these community corrections facilities can work," he continued. "We really believe, philosophically, there's a lot of potential."

They typically cost $60 to $70 per day per inmate. The cost to house a person in a state prison is $90 per day.

In looking at as many as 4,500 people, that difference in cost is significant, Mr. Bucklen said.

"Obviously, anything that improves an inmate in any way before he's released full-blown back into the neighborhood is beneficial," Judge Manning said. "Maybe we should be pleased that four out of 10 people aren't committing another crime.

"I'm not."

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Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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