Budget Cuts Threaten Oregon's Low Recidivism Rate

Despite dramatic reductions in recidivism that position it as a national model for prison reform, Oregon legislators are considering $16 million in cuts to prison-based programs that have trained offenders to successfully re-enter society.

According to a Pew Center on the States Study released in April 2011, between 2004 and 2007, Oregon recorded a recidivism rate of 22.8 percent, the lowest rate in the nation. Oregon also led the nation in recidivism decline from a rate of 33.4 percent in the years between 1999 and 2002. This is a 32 percent reduction in the recidivism rate. Clearly, l system is doing some things right.

Oregon's Evidence-Based Approach Yields Much Success

Oregon officials attribute the State's success to a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to reforming its prison and community corrections programs. Bipartisan legislation passed in 2003 formed the foundation of the state's efforts to tackle recidivism through practical, evidence-based programs that touch the system at all levels - field supervision, judiciary, state corrections departments and the legislature.

During the period of study, Oregon's incoming inmates received risk and need assessments, case management during incarceration, and detailed transition planning beginning six months before release. Once released, probation officers enforced rules statewide through quick and consistent sanctions for technical violations that cut re-incarceration nearly in half. Continuous monitoring and program improvement helped optimize effectiveness.

However, cuts recently recommended by Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber called for slashing prison-based alcohol and drug treatment, vocational training, parenting programs and other interventions aimed at transforming inmates into responsible citizens.

The Pew study found that the 41 states tracked in the study could save a combined $635 million a year by cutting recidivism rates by 10 percent. Budget cuts could deliver a major setback to this success.

Despite Increased Spending, Recidivism Results Vary Widely

Tax funded spending by state corrections departments increased from $30 billion to $52 billion annually over the last decade, but only slightly improved overall recidivism in the nation's prisons. On a state-by-state basis, results varied widely.

Nationally, 43 percent of prisoners released in 2004 were back in prison by 2007 due to parole violations or new crime convictions, down from 45 percent recorded in a previous study covering 1999 releases. Among the 33 states reporting in both 1999 and 2004, recidivism fell in 17 states and rose in 15 others. One state reported no change. The highest rate of recidivism went to Minnesota - at 61 percent - and five other states topped 50 percent. During the same period, recidivism declined in Kansas by 22 percent and soared in South Dakota by 35 percent.

Practical Impact

Experts are divided on the Pew study's implications. But it seems clear that slashing corrections budgets is likely to be penny-wise but pound-foolish. Society can pay a lot now to get prisoners back on track. Or it can spend a lot later if they re-offend.

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