Being “tough on crime” is a popular campaign talking point. When crimes are committed, research says, fear appeals proliferate. Reason gives way to emotion. A hard line begins to look more attractive, despite evidence against its effectiveness. Officials and judges are elected in part for this stance, experts say, and punitive outcomes compound. Meanwhile, rehabilitation efforts scramble for funding.
It’s a well-worn expedient for material gain, something both politicians and the media are guilty of in the search for votes and ratings. But when coupled with empirical evidence, rhetoric not only gets punctured, but becomes costly for all parties involved.
The U.S. incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country in the world. Despite having about 5 percent of the world’s population, it boasts a quarter of the world’s prison population, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.
The consequences are untenable. According to a study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that studies crime policy, the U.S. prison system costs taxpayers almost $39 billion annually.
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“Just compare the money we spend on education versus corrections and it’s just staggering,” said Thom Brewster, the executive director of CentrePeace, which provides rehabilitative programs for offenders. “It’s completely upside down. If we can keep just one person from reoffending, that saves us as a community.”
The Federal Register reported the cost to incarcerate a federal inmate was about $32,000 in 2015. In Centre County, the cost is more than $24,000 a year — or about $65 a day, said Gene Lauri, the director of the county’s criminal justice planning department.
In both a personal and a pecuniary sense, recidivism cuts deep, crippling communities besides re-entrants’ chances of rehabilitation. In the U.S., about 300,000 parolees are sent back to prison, according to the National Research Council.
“The whole purpose of reducing recidivism is to save taxpayer money by giving people more opportunities through employment, education options, job training, mental health treatment, getting them transportation, getting them housing,” Centre County Commissioner Michael Pipe said. “If we can surround an individual who has been involved in the criminal justice system with a lot of those services, and reduce their likelihood to return to prison, we can be talking about tens of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year of saving money on incarceration.”
But there is hope. Programs are popping up across the country that help ex-offenders re-assimilate into communities and a way of life that feels foreign after incarceration. Most rely upon volunteers.
In Centre County, a re-entry coalition was formed in 2014, comprised of members from several community organizations, local government and faith-based groups. Pipe, who works with the coalition, pointed to steps in the right direction since it was formed.
Last year, for instance, the county removed the criminal conviction question from its employment applications for certain positions, a policy Gov. Tom Wolf announced for state employee applications in May.
Pipe said it took about three months from the initial draft to adoption. He said the county has hired individuals who have gone through the system and are making the most of another chance at life.
“They’ve been able to rehabilitate themselves,” Pipe said. “They have families, they’ve come through amazing struggles and have been able to rebuild their lives.”
Last year, volunteers at the Centre County Correctional Facility founded another program, “Building Hope,” which connects re-entrants to mentors in the community. Danielle Minarchick, a counselor at the facility, said the program, with about 13 participants currently, is growing, but remains in its early stages.
“It’s small, but we want it to be successful,” Minarchick said.
The program involves re-entrants meeting with an assigned mentor about once every week to two weeks. It can be as simple as grabbing coffee to driving to get a haircut before a job interview.
The tasks sound simple. But for a person who has been locked up, Minarchick said, it makes a difference.
Many don’t have the requisite forms of identification for everyday life upon leaving. Driver’s licenses and photo ID cards have been replaced by a number.
“That’s critically important when you’re leaving a system that has defined you in a such a negative way,” Brewster said. “They’ve taken away your name. They’ve taken away any sense of identity that you had.”
Yet tracking the efficacy of the initiatives remains difficult. Of the facility’s 900 inmates that were released in 2013, Lauri said, about 30 percent returned. Both Lauri and Pipe said data were not available for the success rate of the programs, or if they’ve had a significant effect on reducing rates for recidivism.
“It’s something we’re in the process of tracking now,” Lauri said.
Lauri said the lack of affordable housing in the region also makes it difficult for ex-offenders to re-enter the community. When they have trouble finding employment, social support and a place to live, often crime, a return to what’s familiar, fills the void.
But experts say rethinking the “tough on crime” stance can save communities not only in terms of dollars, but lives as well.
“It’s a hard ship to turn,” Brewster said. “But I think that it will. It has to.”