Sunday, December 19, 2004
By: Matthew T. Mangino
In 1994, John Popovich, a 34-year-old convicted felon, was found guilty on charges of forging a drug prescription -- a crime committed almost exclusively by substance abusers. He was sentenced to five years probation.
During the 10 years since, he has violated his probation and then his parole eight times. By July 1, 2004, Popovich had served more than two years in jail, even though his original sentence did not require jail time.
Today, Popovich sits in a state correctional facility, having been resentenced to a prison term of 2 1/2 to five years. Popovich doesn't deserve pity; he has a criminal record dating back to 1981. He also committed at least two additional criminal offenses while on probation. But his case, which I have followed with growing dismay, highlights the need to make real changes in the rehabilitation and treatment of prisoners in order to end the cycle of re-incarceration.
Every page of Popovich 's lengthy criminal history is evidence not only of enormous waste of public resources but also of a correctional system that has run amok. So much so, that I sometimes feel as if we are operating a revolving door in the courtrooms here in Lawrence County, just north of Pittsburgh, where Popovich is only one of many repeat offenders. Our experience is not unusual. State and local governments are being crushed under the fiscal demands of America's prison system. Cells across the country are full, not because of mandatory sentencing or the incarceration of drug offenders, but because the system produces thousands of people like Popovich every day, having repeatedly failed to help them gain the skills necessary to manage life on the outside.
We are incarcerating more people for longer periods than at any time in our history. That number isn't just increasing; it is soaring. In 1980, the United States had approximately 316,000 inmates in state and federal prisons; by 2000, there were 1.3 million. Currently, we have more than 2 million people incarcerated when you add together federal, state and local jails, not to mention an additional 4.8 million people who are on parole or probation, totaling approximately 3.2 percent of the adult U.S. population.
Behind those numbers lie patterns of behavior that could be treated. Nearly 75 percent of people who enter the prison system have substance abuse problems; they are drug addicted or alcohol dependent. Nearly one in five has mental health issues. There are few life sentences in this country. Virtually everyone who goes into prison eventually gets out, and many go right back.
Here is the irony of the situation: As the cost of maintaining and expanding prisons has increased, most of the funds that states set aside to help prisoners make the transition from prison to life outside have been slashed. In 1991, one in four state prison inmates received treatment for drug addiction. By 1997, one in 10 received treatment. This has occurred even in light of research suggesting inmates in federal prison who receive residential drug treatment are 73 percent less likely to be rearrested.
Of course, the lack of support for inmates goes beyond drug treatment. A significant majority of released inmates face challenges in housing, education, employment and the availability of assistance on release from incarceration. Imagine yourself as an unskilled, unemployed, homeless parolee, possibly prohibited from getting a driver's license, student loans or even access to public housing. What are your options?
Few, as Popovich found out. Sixty-seven percent of parolees nationwide are rearrested or back in prison within three years.
The costs of this are staggering. Between 1980 and 2000, when the total prison population quadrupled from 500,000 to 2 million, corrections' share of all state and local spending doubled while education's share of all state and local spending dropped by 21 percent. In fact, state spending on incarceration increased annually by 6.2 percent, outpacing health care at 5.8 percent, education at 4.2 percent and natural resources at 3.3 percent.
There is another way to look at how we are spending money on prisoners. The average annual cost to incarcerate an inmate in state prison is $22,650, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. If the cost of meaningful substance abuse treatment, skills training and reentry support added 25 percent to the cost of incarceration and reduced recidivism by 25 percent, states would face a short-term loss, then break even within six years and save money within nine. More importantly, there would be 75 to 100 fewer victims of crime for every 100 inmates during that period. With fewer victims, the nearly $450 billion in annual losses experienced by crime victims would also begin to decrease. Not to mention that 37 former inmates would be gainfully employed, paying taxes, raising families and contributing to the local, state and federal economies.
Unfortunately, few people think in these terms, and they often confuse the cause for the burgeoning prison population with measures designed to get tough on crime. Because of mandatory sentencing, criminals who committed multiple violent offenses, used weapons or sold drugs have been put behind bars. Such efforts have had an impact on violent crime. However, those who have paid their debt to society should be given an opportunity to succeed upon reentry into society. Instead they are being dumped on the street to fend for themselves and will eventually feed the cycle of reincarceration.
To complicate matters, in an effort to deal with the soaring costs, government leaders are arbitrarily releasing inmates. Kentucky, Oklahoma and Texas, to name a few, are opening prison doors, often commuting sentences or repealing mandatory drug sentences. This shortsighted reaction does nothing but put citizens at risk.
Parole and probation officers, burdened by ever-larger caseloads, struggle with their evolving roles in the criminal justice system. Inmates are normally released conditionally, for a period of parole for which they must comply with rules and regulations monitored by a parole officer.
With the enormous caseload that most parole officers handle -- 50 percent higher on average than it was in the mid-'70s -- interactive supervision has given way to electronic surveillance, rigid drug testing and mandatory reporting. Instead of providing support for a former inmate, parole officers have become quasi-law enforcement. They carry guns, wear badges and often re-incarcerate parolees for technical violations like failing to report or failing a drug test.
In 1985, 70 percent of parolees successfully completed their parole periods. By 2003, fewer than 47 percent were making it through their parole periods, according to national averages for state prisons. Those who violate their parole and are re-incarcerated account for 35 percent of all prison admissions -- the fastest growing area of incarceration.
There is some reason for hope. Organizations like the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention at the University of Illinois at Chicago, for example, provides innovative programs aimed at treating violence as a disease. The Chicago program, called CeaseFire, uses ex-offenders in much the way Alcoholics Anonymous uses recovering alcoholics to convey a message of recovery and hope. Some suggest that CeaseFire is part of the reason the homicide count in Chicago has dropped significantly from last year's nation-leading numbers. There were 393 homicides through the beginning of November 2004, down 126 from the same time the previous year.
Many progressive counties are considering reentry programs to assist former inmates to reintegrate into their communities. The programs vary in scope, but the emphasis is on providing life skills, employment opportunities, housing options and educational enhancement. Drug and alcohol treatment, mental health services and behavioral disorders are also provided. Through such efforts, the goal of local government is to help former inmates become productive, law-abiding citizens.
The federal government has also acknowledged that helping ex-offenders successfully reenter society can prevent and deter future criminal acts, although it has not allocated anywhere near the amount of resources needed to deal with the problem.
If men and women like John Popovich are to have a good chance of making a go of it on the outside, governors and state legislatures will ultimately have to deal with this issue, even in an era of declining state budgets. Logic dictates that re-incarcerating two out of every three offenders is a costly, self-defeating effort. A public official can still be tough on criminals while being smart on crime prevention by reducing the cycle of incarceration and, in turn, reducing costs and victimization.
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