Geoff Schoos: Smart Ways to Reform RI Corrections

Geoff Schoos has an interesting column in this week’s Cranston Herald about what the state could do to save money on incarceration and bring non-violent ex-offenders back into the economy. I’m reprinting the column here for educational purposes, and because for some reason his column is having formatting problems on the Herald’s website and is cutting off the text on the edges of the page. From the Herald:

We have, in fact, two kinds of morality side by side: one which we preach but do not practice, and another which we practice but seldom preach. –Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays (1928)

Society often presents us with a never-ending stream of paradoxes. Some are big and obvious. For example, it is paradoxical that the United States supports the spread of democracy throughout the world, while propping up totalitarian governments “vital� to our national security. It is paradoxical that our government promotes the strict adherence to the rule of law, while bending and stretching that rule in order to win the “War on Terror.� It is definitely paradoxical for government at all levels to speak about shared civic responsibilities, while enacting policies and programs that favor the few at the expense of the many. These are big, almost transcendent paradoxes.

There are other less obvious paradoxes in our country and state. One is how we treat people who were incarcerated or otherwise under a court’s supervision and who re-enter our community. According to a report of the Re-Entry Policy Council, which was created by the Council of State Governments, nationally many of these ex-offenders committed non-violent crimes and suffered from some form of substance abuse.

The situation is similar in Rhode Island. According to the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RIDOC), in its 2007 Annual Commit and Release Report, 4,181 people were either released upon completion of their sentences or paroled. Based on the DOC’s report, roughly one-half of those released were non-violent offenders. Many of these individuals were sentenced to six months or less. According to friends in the recovery community, nearly 70 percent of those incarcerated suffer from drug abuse problems.

The RIDOC also reports that in calendar year 2007, 4,470 individuals were sentenced to prison. Of this number, 39 percent, or approximately 1,744 people, were sentenced as probation violators. It’s those 1,744 people that I’d like to focus on. Let’s assume that each one of these people is a non-violent offender who, for whatever reason, violated his/her parole. More often than not, the probation violation is the result of falling back into old habits, including drug use. Using the RIDOC’s per diem cost to house these people in minimum security (for purposes of this illustration, I assume all to be males as the cost per diem to house females at the women’s facility is higher) the cost to the state, if each is sentenced to six months, is $27 million. Compare that with the cost of supervising the same 1,744 people as community-based offenders. Those same offenders during those same six months would have cost the taxpayers $923,000. Neither cost includes the cost of administration and capital expenses. I’m no math whiz, but it seems that we’re spending a lot more money putting people in jail than we’d need to spend in keeping them out.

According to Director Wall of the RIDOC, in calendar year 2004 by the second year of their release, 46 percent of these ex-offenders were re-incarcerated for at least one year for other offenses. Permit me a couple of more assumptions. First, the recidivist rate remains at 46 percent two years after release. Second, each re-offender will be sent to medium security for at least one year. Third, we can apply that 46 percent recidivist rate to the 4,181 persons released in calendar year 2007 and we get 1,923 people sent back to prison. At the per annum cost of housing these inmates at the medium security facility here in Cranston (again minimizing the cost by excluding the cost of the women’s facility and administrative costs associated with incarceration), we get to spend an additional $67 million on the same guys that were released only 24 months earlier.

OK, I know that this analysis is (a little?) dense. However, I needed to do it to make two points. One is that our current system of re-entry is not working well, and two that we’re paying a lot of money for failure. Maybe if we spent some of this money on programs and policies that keep people out of prison, we wouldn’t have to spend so much to keep them in prison. And if we could keep these people out of prison, drug-free and gainfully employed, we’d all be better off.

In the quote that opened this column, Russell puts his finger on the moral paradox regarding this issue. We preach the morality of rehabilitation, but provide scant resources to that goal. The state could direct some of this money on re-incarceration to state and private drug treatment programs. The state could use some of this money to better fund job re-entry programs. The state could issue Certificates of Rehabilitation based on the New York State program on a case-by-case basis to aid ex-offenders in their search for jobs, applications for licenses and attainment of housing. The administration of this Certificate program would cost much less than re-incarcerating the same guys over and over again. The legislature could enact, at no cost to the taxpayer, Senate Bill 2189 that would mandate parity in insurance coverage for mental illness and substance abuse treatment. There are many things we could do that make better sense than what we’re doing now.

One additional thing that needs to be done in order to ease and complete an ex-offender’s successful re-entry into society is to revise the expungement statute. Recently, this has become a “hot button� issue with many Rhode Islanders. There are legitimate concerns about expunging an offender’s record. There are those who shouldn’t be eligible for expungement, such as sex offenders and those who commit homicide. However, if 46 percent of those released into society are going to be re-sentenced to prison after two years, that means that 54 percent do not re-offend and need a little help.

Let me introduce you to a client of mine. He got into some trouble for a five-year period during the late ’80s and early ’90s. The cause for most of his problems was alcohol. He was convicted of five misdemeanor offenses related to his alcohol abuse. However, for the past 15 years, he’s been clean and sober, gotten married to a wonderful woman and is the proud father of three. He went back to college and graduated with honors. For all his professional life he has been employed in the nonprofit sector working with families and kids. He has been praised for his efforts by his employers and even by Attorney General Lynch.

Because funding for nonprofit agencies is tenuous in good economic times, and these are decidedly not good times, my client sought to guard against any income disruption and thought that he’d like to obtain a chauffeur’s license to supplement his income. He submitted his application and was denied because of the incidents that occurred 15 years ago. To add insult to injury, he can’t get his record expunged because expungement is available only to “first-time� offenders. He is a multiple misdemeanant.

My client is no longer the guy he was 15 years ago. That is to his credit. Yet rather than recognizing the change in him, society still treats him as though he were still that person. That’s not just wrong. It’s stupid.

If we are to overcome Russell’s moral paradox, we need to match resources to our rhetoric. We want those re-entering society to succeed. It’s good for them and it’s good for us. Understand that in 2007, 4.9 percent of those released from prison came home to Cranston. This is one of those rare instances where it makes both moral and economic sense to extend a helping hand to those who need and truly want our help.

For our efforts, we get to do the right thing, live in safer communities, and save a few dollars to boot. What’s better than that?