By Tracie Mauriello
Fewer Pennsylvania offenders are returning to prison, according to a new report commissioned by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments.
On Thursday, the center recognized Pennsylvania and seven other states for their progress on reducing recidivism rates. In Pennsylvania’s case, the three-year recidivism rate decreased by 7.1 percent over the last six years.
“When you translate that into raw numbers, we’re talking about 500 fewer people going back to prison, which is halfway to building a new prison,” said Michael Thompson, director of the center.
The report also highlighted progress of Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Wisconsin. The states were picked because recent data available for them show progress, Justice Center leaders said.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel attended a briefing at the U.S. Capitol to explain how they’re keeping parolees from returning to prison by offering them adjudication in specialized drug courts, working to help them find jobs when they are released and focusing efforts on transition programs.
“We’ve got to be smart on crime. We have to protect our citizens but at the same time we have to do what we can to reclaim our offenders as productive citizens,” said Mr. Corbett, a former state attorney general and U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania.
Of Pennsylvania offenders released in 2008, 43.9 percent returned to prison with three years, according to the report by the National Reentry Resource Center. Meanwhile, 40.8 percent of those released in 2010 were incarcerated again within three years.
“This goes well beyond numbers,” Mr. Wetzel said. “This is about lives and it’s not just about adult lives — the people incarcerated — it’s about the lives of people in our communities, especially our children.”
He said Pennsylvania’s 51,000 inmates have 81,000 children.
The report highlighted Pennsylvania’s Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive program that allowed certain non-violent offenders to have sentences reduced for good behavior and for participating in programs aimed at helping reduce risk factors for repeat offending.
It also credited performance incentives that reward private operators of halfway houses who hold down recidivism and punish those who don’t by revoking contracts. The report credited those measures with reducing recidivism by 16 percent among residents of the halfway houses.
Mr. Corbett, meanwhile, credited the state’s new Justice Reinvestment Initiative, an approach to policy-making that relies on data and research.
“These reforms are saving taxpayers’ money, holding offenders accountable, making our communities safer and building a stronger Pennsylvania,” the governor said in a written statement after his speech.
Mr. Wetzel said Pennsylvania had been building a new prison roughly every 18 months before Mr. Corbett took office and put his focus on rehabilitating offenders instead of incarcerating them.