Money spent on ex-offender work programs shows a strong payback

This blog has previously noted the growing concern among government officials, criminal justice administrators, reform advocates and everyday citizens — in virtually all states, from Georgia to Alaska — regarding our nation’s overflowing prison population and the attendant incarceration-related costs that are skyrocketing to an almost mind-boggling degree.

Critics say that far too many inmates shouldn’t even be in prison. Non-violent prisoners who have been convicted on charges of drug possession or drug distribution of small amounts of marijuana or cocaine, for example, are imprisoned on lengthy sentences in the hundreds of thousands.

The numbers are truly staggering. Reliable estimates place the prison and local-jail population in the United States presently at around 2.3 million inmates.

And the costs of that mass incarceration? Authorities say that taxpayers commit more than $80 billion annually on the criminal justice system nationwide, with most of that going toward prison maintenance and upkeep.

Rising criticism notes that too little of it goes toward preparing low-risk inmates about to return to — or who have recently reentered — life outside of prison walls.

Recidivism is high for those persons — about 43 percent nationally.

Programs that have cropped up across the country that help ex-inmates with work-related skills and then help them find employment drop that number appreciably. One program in Newark, New Jersey, for example, has placed nearly 1,100 ex-offenders into private jobs and seen only 29 percent of them rearrested within nine months following placement.

That number is still high, of course, and serves to confirm the many challenges facing ex-prisoners seeking to reintegrate into the work force. Still, a 14 percent drop in recidivism equates potentially to savings in the many billions of dollars each year, while also having a salutary effect on crime rates in general.

And success stories like Newark’s — which emphasize jobs above all else — are also being replicated in other states and municipalities, with advocates saying that the upfront costs for such programs are recouped quickly and many times over by savings gained through a lower recidivism rate.

Source: Wall Street Journal, “From prison to a paycheck,” Howard Husock, Aug. 3, 2012