Northampton County, PA: Three-Pronged Strategy to Combat Recidivism

By Christopher Zoukis 

Not pleased with their perpetual need to keep expanding their prison's capacity, local leaders and officials in Northampton County, Pennsylvania have been searching for a comprehensive strategy to reduce the county's high levels of recidivism.  In 2012, the recidivism rate for inmates being released from Northampton County Prison was 58 percent, a full 18 points over the national average.   Image courtesy prisonlawblog.com

Encouragement has come from an earlier initiative in the county, contracting with Community Education Centers to provide alcohol treatment programs and parenting classes, which demonstrated the success of initiatives of this sort, cutting the rate of recidivism in half for those inmates who completed the program.  For over a year, a working party has been looking into further measures to build on this success.

In March, the final report, authored by the county's re-entry coordinator Laura Savenelli, was presented to prison officials, local community leaders, and mental health providers at a re-entry summit in Bethlehem, PA.  The group identified three key problems:

  • ·         Seventy percent of inmates have substance abuse issues, which need to be addressed.
  • ·         Many prisoners have mental health problems, with more than 20 percent taking psychotropic medication.
  • ·         There is a lack of classroom space for GED classes, and a need for better vocational training.

As in almost all prisons and jails, a large majority of Northampton County Prison's inmates, almost three-quarters, have substance abuse issues.  For many non-violent offenders, drug treatment is a far more effective response than incarceration.  One proposal, therefore, is to establish a specific drug court to handle these cases, and to decide who would be better served by treatment than a term of incarceration.

Similarly, according to http://prisoneducation.com, mental health problems are far more prevalent in prisons than in society as a whole.  In part, this is due to a failure of community mental health provision, and partly because vulnerable members of society often do not seek out appropriate treatment.  As a consequence of the closure of the vast majority of psychiatric hospitals, such individuals are now far more likely to find themselves in prison, where mental health treatment is typically inadequate.

In response, another proposal in the report is the establishment of a specialized mental health court to decide the relative merits of incarceration versus referral for mental health treatment, a proposal supported by Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli.

Judge Stephen Baratta, Northampton County President, said that his colleagues at the bench were interested in exploring the practicalities of both courts, and will be meeting soon with the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts as well as county officials and local prosecutors to discuss this further.

The report also found that both education and training programs need to be strengthened.  A high proportion of inmates do not have a high school diploma or a GED, yet there is a long waiting list to get into GED classes due to limited classroom space and teacher availability.

The report recommended the reintroduction of vocational training.  An auto-mechanics program was run at a garage in the prison until 1995, when the space was converted into additional cells to house the growing inmate population.  The authors now envision vocational programs with strong links to local businesses.  This would ensure that the inmates learn practical, real-world skills, and could also potentially offer employment with those businesses when the incarcerated students are released from custody.

According to http://prisonlawblog.com, Pennsylvania has the sixth highest prison population in the country, and saw a 40 percent increase in that population between 2000 and the start of 2012, to a total of over 51,000 inmates.  Clearly this is a huge financial burden on the state, and it is greatly exacerbated by the high rate of recidivism.  For many, it also represents a lost opportunity to address substance abuse and mental health issues, and to fill educational gaps whilst the individuals still have a chance to get their lives back on track, and an opportunity for a full and productive life.

Northampton County is to be applauded for taking time to see the bigger picture, and for looking for a more holistic approach to combating crime, recidivism, and mental illness.  The county's Criminal Justice Advisory Board is now studying the report in detail to decide how best to act on its findings.