Cautious Optimism over State’s Declining Recidivism Rate

A national study’s documentation of a declining rate of recidivism in Wisconsin’s prison population is being received cautiously by some people involved with helping inmates re-enter communities.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center found Wisconsin’s 2007 recidivism rate of 56.2% dipped to 51.5% in 2010.

The study’s authors cite several factors in the drop, among them: Wisconsin’s workforce development programs for prison inmates in the last months of their sentences and in the months after their release; more jail stays replacing revocations to prison as response to probation violations; and expanded alcohol and other drug abuse treatment programs.

Former inmate Caliph Muab-el runs Breaking Barriers Mentoring, Inc., a non-profit group with a mission to help inmates as they re-enter communities. He says prison revocations over rules violations remain a hurdle for inmates trying to sustain jobs and other community ties. Muab-el says the stigma of felony convictions and prison stays remains formidable.

“They have these employment barriers. They have housing barriers,” Muab-el says.

Muab-el says the “ban the box” movement and its introduction in Madison is a helpful step in promoting successful community re-entry. The initiative removes the requirement a job applicant check a box to indicate a criminal conviction in the early stages of the job application process, increasing the chances an otherwise qualified applicant can progress toward a job finalist pool, when conviction record and other hiring factors can be weighed.

Muab-el says the initiative is exemplary of communities becoming more receptive to facilitating people’s return from prison terms. “The key to getting more people top stay out of prison is the community’s response.”

29-year old Jeremiah Edwards of Madison was released from prison in December 2012, after serving terms over several years for armed robbery and other crimes. Edwards is training to work in the hospitality industry, after working in the construction trades immediately upon his release.

Edwards credits the help of Breaking Barriers and a construction apprenticeship program for reentering inmates for helping him remain crime-free.

“Both of those programs helped me be where I’m at today,” Edwards says.

A state department of corrections spokesperson says the trend of declining recidivism is positive, and consistent with DOC’s data collection in connection with the post-prison experience of inmates.

While the study showed Wisconsin’s recidivism rate dropping nearly five percent over three years, the rate was still higher than the rates of Colorado, South Carolina, and a half a dozen other states also cited for declining rates of recidivism.