The Cost of Recidivism: Victims, the Economy, and American Prisons

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy prainc.com

In the criminal justice community we often hear about recidivism.  This is the relapse of former prisoners or probationers back into crime.  The reason we focus so much on this topic is because it is a measure of our success.  None of us teach prisoners or promote prison reform solely because we find it interesting: we do so because we aim to make a difference in our students and the world around us.  And recidivism rates are our measuring stick.  The lower the rate, the more successful we have been.  The higher the rate, the more work there is that still needs to be done.

Recidivism is a problem.  It's a big problem.  The fact is, most prisoners will fail unless they are provided with meaningful educational, vocational, and rehabilitative programming.  This isn't a surprise considering that an internal revision needs to take place in order for a person to change their ways.  This is true regardless of whether the person has a damaged character or not.  So, we must strive to find ways to implement such meaningful and transformational programming, and we must obtain the funding required to start and sustain such essential programs.

Since we so often cover the benefits of educating America's incarcerated class, it would be useful to touch upon the other side of the issue today: the negative effects of recidivism upon the various criminal justice stakeholders.  This way the discussion here at Prison Education News is that much more rounded and complete.

Why Recidivism is Such a Devastating Problem

Recidivism on the surface doesn't seem like a crippling issue.  An inmate leaves prison, returns to crime, and returns to prison.  This seems fairly offender-centric, but there are many, many hidden costs and parties which need to be considered.  After all, the American people's concern isn't in a higher quality of life for wrongdoers, but reduced victimization and the plethora of costs associated with it (e.g., policing, criminal justice, and other costs).

With this in mind, recidivism effects a number of distinct entities:

      ·         Crime Victims: Perhaps the most unfortunate group to be effected by crime are the innocent victims of it.  Prison education enters the equation after the instant -- or first -- victim of crime has already been impacted.  One of the major goals of prison education and rehabilitation is to stop future crimes and, thus, future victimizations.  Every time a prisoner is released from custody and reoffends, this results in the creation of yet another victim.  We must never forget that we aren't only fighting for better, crime-free lives for our incarcerated students, but for one less victim, too.

       ·         The Economy: Recidivism is crippling to our state and national economies.  In nearly every state, the cost of state prisons has grown substantially in the past decade.  In 2007 alone, Massachusetts spent over $500 million on its prison system.  Total spending on corrections nationwide exceeds $60 billion per year.  These are huge, crippling amounts of tax dollars being spent on a system which fails most of the time.  With each new recidivist, a new victim of crime is created, yet more tax dollars must go to re-incarceration, and more funds are siphoned off from essential early education programs and social services, both of which help to stop initial crime in the first place.  As noted above, prison education strives to stop this continuing -- and often intergenerational -- cycle of crime.  When funds are spent on creating and sustaining such prison education programs, the savings as a result of slashed recidivism rates more than pay for the programs, to say nothing of monies garnered when educated ex-prisoners are working, paying taxes, and contributing financially to their communities by engaging in commerce.

       ·         American Prisons: Even the prisons, places designed to house offenders, are burdened by high recidivism rates.  As the number of inmates rises, prison systems must find constitutionally-compliant ways to house the increasing populations, often having to do so without the aid of additional funding.  This often results in prison overcrowding, which then further aggravates the worst aspects of incarceration: unrest, violence, misconduct, and security concerns.  While it can be easy to simply vilify prison administrations -- and some have gone as far as to suggest that the prison administrations want former prisoners to fail -- the truth of the matter is that with every recidivist comes another prisoner that the administration must care for, and this is simply a burden when bed space -- and existing health, foodservice, recreation, and other essential services -- are already overextended and underfunded.

Recidivism is a plague upon American society.  It crushes the lives of prisoners and their families.  It burdens the American taxpayers.  It creates harmful and hostile prison environments, which then harm those subjected to such systems of correction.  And it creates new victims of crime as each new ex-prisoner becomes a recidivist.

Recidivism is a problem of the highest magnitude.  Every year we, as a nation, spend over $60 billion on prison systems, a limited portion of which is used on first-time offenders.  This is money drained away from early education initiatives, state universities, and other essential social services.  Even though a person might not have ever been a victim of crime or a criminal, if they live in America, they've been impacted by the atrocious rate of recidivism in the United States.

What should offend all Americans is that our current high rate of recidivism is somewhat of a public policy decision.  While no one wants there to be a high recidivism rate, some groups find it easier to accept a high recidivism rate than to deal with the political firestorm that would result if the chief method of reducing recidivism was to be expanded: education in prison.

While it most certainly doesn't allow policy makers to look tough on crime to educate America's incarcerated class, it certainly is smart on crime.  Education has time and time again proven to be the most successful, cost-effective method of reducing recidivism, yet it is one which is often discarded as providing privileges to the undeserving.  Let me say that again.  Prison education initiatives are often discarded, regardless of their truly amazing success ratios, due to the worry of looking soft on crime.  A sad statement of America electoral politics to be certain.

With the unfortunate political reality at the forefront, it is now our job as prison education activists to educate the public.  We must discuss the devastating cost of recidivism and present the most successful options to reducing it.  We must show the American public the research and convert thinkers into believers.  Once we do that, these newfound believers will take the message with them and continue to spread the message which sustains our industry: prison education is the most effective, least costly method of reducing recidivism and crime.  And that's what it's all about.

Editorial Note: PrisonEducation.com staff are now in the process of creating a number of public advocacy research documents to help those in the prison education community more effectively advocate for the expanded use of education for prison inmates.  We will publish notices here at Prison Education News as these documents become available.