Friday, March 8, 2013

The Cautionary Instruction: Incentivizing recidivism reduction may be tricky

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
March 8, 2013

Last week, Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel released what he called a "landmark study" into recidivism rates at Pennsylvania’s correctional facilities. The news is not good - the overall recidivism rate within three years of release from prison is 60 percent.

One in 200 Pennsylvania adults is currently incarcerated in a state correctional institution. With the introduction of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative Pennsylvania has focused on reducing prison population and funneling the savings down to local authorities for policing, treatment and community supervision.

Recidivism is defined in three ways: Rearrest, the first instance of arrest after inmates are released from state prison; reincarceration, the first instance of returning to state prison after inmates are released from state prison; and overall recidivism, the first instance of any type of rearrest or reincarceration after inmates are released from state prison.

With overall recidivism as a baseline the state is voiding all the contracts with the 38 privately owned community corrections centers -- better known as half-way houses -- requiring each to rebid and making the new contracts performance-based.

Under the new contracts, if the overall recidivism rate for inmates passing through the center decline, the contractor will be paid a higher rate. Profit will be tied to public safety.

"They'll be required to maintain that baseline and will be incentivized if they reduce [recidivism,]" said Brett Bucklen director of planning, research and statistics for Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections.

If a facility is able to reduce overall recidivism rates by 10 percent, it will get paid more per offender.
"We want to measure performance. We want quantifiable performance," Bucklen said. The measurements will be conducted by the state, which will collect and compare all data.

The counties with the top five overall recidivism rates include two from western Pennsylvania -- Allegheny at 65.5 percent and Blair with 61.6 percent. The surrounding counties stack up like this: Lawrence, 56 percent; Beaver, 57 percent; Butler, 57 percent; Washington, 60 percent; and Westmoreland, 53 percent.

Holding community correction centers accountable for their performance when it comes to reducing overall recidivism has the feel of an evidence-based, sabermetric approach to reducing prison population and saving costs, but it has its risks.

The primary concern is the quality of the data. Community Correction Centers often seek outside intervention for assaultive behavior or other misconducts that could give rise to technical parole violations or criminal charges. Would there be less incentive to report such conduct to a parole agent or police officer if the report could have an impact on an incentive payment or the continuation of the contract.

What does this mean for public safety? A parolee, who continues her criminal thinking, possesses illegal drugs or manifests violent conduct should not be out of prison and on the street. The Department of Corrections needs to be vigilant in insuring that community correction vendors are not putting profits ahead of public safety.

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