Ohio’s decline in prison recidivism among steepest in U.S., study says

The national criminal recidivism rate “remains stubbornly high” despite huge increases in state spending on prisons over the past two decades, according to a study issued Wednesday by the Pew Center on the States.

The study singled out Ohio as having one of the steepest declines among the states studied in the number of convicts who returned to prison for parole violations.

More than four in 10 convicts in the United States return to prison within three years, either because they violated their parole or committed new felonies, Pew reported in what it called the “first-ever state-by-state survey of recidivism rates.”

In collaboration with the Association of State Correctional Administrators, Pew followed inmates released in 1999 and in 2004 and found that 45.4 percent and 43.3 percent, respectively, returned to prison within three years. Federal statistics for decades have pegged the recidivism rate at about 40 percent.

Ohio’s three-year recidivism rate for inmates released in 2007, the most recent statistics available, is 34 percent, the lowest in 11 years. That’s down from 39.6 percent among inmates released in 2004.

“There’s been an enormous escalation in prison spending but a barely noticeable impact on the national recidivism rate,” said Pew’s Adam Gelb. “These troubling figures should accelerate the trend toward policies that will give taxpayers a better public safety return on their massive expenditure on incarceration.”

Reducing recidivism also reduces government spending: Pew said state corrections spending has quadrupled over the past two decades to more than $50 billion a year, and corrections is second only to Medicaid as the fastest-growing state budget category. If the 41 states reporting data cut their recidivism by 10 percent, Pew said, they’d be able to cut corrections spending by a combined $635 million in one year.

Gov. John Kasich’s fiscal 2012 executive budget recommendations call for cutting total corrections spending from an estimated $1.75 billion in fiscal 2011 to $1.57 billion, a reduction of 9.9 percent. Operating expenses for Ohio prisons have leaped from $427 million in fiscal 1991 to $1.2 billion in fiscal 2001 to nearly $1.5 billion in fiscal 2011.

The Pew study noted that the percentage of Ohio convicts who returned on parole violations fell from 12 percent to 7 percent between the two periods. That 7 percent held steady for inmates released in 2007, while fewer convicts returned on new felonies.

“These numbers are good. It didn’t just happen — it’s because there’s been a concerted effort in Ohio to bring these numbers down,” said Montgomery County Commissioner Deborah Lieberman, who is active in local efforts to smooth ex-convicts’ re-entry into the community. “These efforts are starting to pay off.”

Ohio prisons remain crowded, with nearly 51,000 inmates in 31 prisons designed for 38,389. Almost half of new inmates have sentences of a year or less.

Pew said the states that are most successful in lowering recidivism are those using what it calls evidence-based strategies that are cheaper than prison and work better in helping ex-convicts remain law-abiding.

Ed Rhine, deputy director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said Ohio is using such strategies, including better methods for screening inmates for rehabilitative programming and assessing parolees’ levels of risk and the seriousness of violations when deciding whether to revoke parole. Those ex-convicts who pose little risk to the public and have committed minor parole violations are now more likely to remain in the community, where they can hold down jobs and have more access to rehabilitation programs, he said.

Rhine said the state started using progressive sanctions for parole violators around 2006 to “keep a larger number of offenders in the community without endangering the public. We don’t want to prematurely pull the revocation trigger. Years ago, we might have been quicker to return them to prison.”

The study found that recidivism rates differ considerably between states for various reasons, including the types of inmates sentenced to prison, how inmates are chosen for release, the length of parole and decisions about the consequences of violating the rules of supervision.

The numbers of ex-convicts returning to prison for a new crime ranged from 44.7 percent in Alaska to 4.7 percent in Montana, while the number returning for parole violations ran from 40.3 percent in Missouri to zero in Arkansas, which sends parole violators to nonprison programs.

The Pew study had limitations: 41 states provided data for 2004, and 33 provided data for prisoners released in 1999.

Of the 33 states reporting data for both 1999 and 2004, recidivism dropped in 17, rose in 15 and stayed the same in one.

Rhine said no one is satisfied with Ohio’s current numbers. “Thirty-four percent is still too high,” he said, “but it’s a welcome drop.”

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2264 or tbeyerlein @DaytonDailyNews.com.

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