Recidivism as a Policy Issue

Recidivism, the “revolving door” of re-incarceration, is a policy issue in addition to being a moral dilemma. It affects not only individuals and families, but communities at large and their local economies.

There are a lot of moving parts to criminal justice (and criminal justice reform). For this piece, I’d like to focus on a post-sentencing area of criminal justice, recidivism, and discuss its importance to public policy.

Before going on, I should note I personally believe there’s a moral imperative to provide more support for returning citizens. However, I’ve seen some resistance to an ethically-based case, so instead I’ll be making a non-moral argument to support returning citizens and better address recidivism. We’ll review some definitions first, then look at the relationship returning citizens have with the local workforces and economies. Finally, I’ll explain one way recidivism impacts state government spending (i.e., your tax dollars).

Who are returning citizens? What is recidivism?
  • Returning citizens are those who were previously incarcerated in jails or prisons. Some use this term interchangeably with “ex-offenders” and “felons,” but I prefer this term as it’s person-first.
  • Recidivism is understood as two things: a returning citizen’s re-arrest or re-incarceration, and a measure of these instances on a macro level.

Generally, we know that returning citizens reflect the jail and prison populations, meaning these individuals are disproportionately people of color, low-income, without a high school diploma, or some combination of these three things. So there are racial implications here, as with many other things.

Previously incarcerated individuals face a high degree of stigma and several hurdles to reintegration to society. Depending on where they live, they’re ineligible for things like SNAP, public housing, forms of professional licensing, and education grants. Florida’s historic voting rights restoration or various “ban the boxpolicies are recent examples of positive changes, but a returning citizen’s ability to fully reintegrate into a community largely remains complicated.

Recidivism’s impact on local workforces and economies

One of the most important barriers for returning citizens involves finding a job. In addition to stigma and discrimination, those recently released from prison are often without hard skills (technical know-how) and soft skills (professional behavior), essential in today’s job market, due to their time in prison or jail. These reasons may be to blame for higher unemployment among returning citizens than the general public, but only partially. In fact, a key indicator of success for returning citizens is a matter of where they return.

Frequently, the previously incarcerated are forced to return to to their old neighborhoods, which are often economically distressed communities and where jobs may be scarce. Their unemployment ripples through their neighborhoods and cities, sometimes exacerbating already bad conditions and further weakening the local job market. Essentially, the relationship between these individuals and the workforce at large is a death spiral.

Here’s how the turmoil progresses according to a 2008 case study of Chicago: Someone from a distressed neighborhood is incarcerated, having been pushed to commit a crime to make ends meet. After they’re released, they likely go back to that neighborhood, which has since grown more distressed—fewer jobs, less support from the local or state government, etc. That person can’t find a job and their environment doesn’t support their reintegration, so they in turn cannot pump economic activity back into their community.

Now multiply that by hundreds, thousands. Unemployment and recidivism continue to climb. Small local businesses close since fewer people can afford their products or services. The local housing market might take a hit since fewer residents can afford upkeep costs, rent, or mortgage payments. Local organizations that provide support and aid become over-stressed. And in addition to this pattern, events like these also contribute to other things, like displacement and crime.

Even if you have no qualms about this immoral practice, you cannot ignore how mind-bogglingly stupid and inefficient this is: we’re effectively shunning returning citizens, which leads to higher rates of recidivism. We’re holding our neighbors hostage, preventing them from supporting themselves and their communities. And it’s costing all of us.

Recidivism’s impact on state spending

Obviously, there’s some cost to re-incarceration, such as court costs or budget implications for prisons. But the scope can’t be too bad, right?

Well, that depends. These costs aren’t the same across the different prison systems in the U.S., but to get an idea, let’s consider Illinois. With help from Pew Charitable Trusts and the MacArthur Foundation, Illinois actually calculated the cost of recidivism to the state. According to the 2018 report, the average cost of just one recidivism event alone is about $152,000. Illinois tax payers would pick up about a third of that cost. (Costs to the victims of the crimes make up half that amount.)

That same report found that Illinois could spend about $13 billion on recidivism over the next five years. Re-incarceration would cost the state $1.3 billion in just one year, but that amount would balloon each year to reflect growing court costs, prison budgets, and other criminal justice expenses. For context, the Illinois prison expenditures annually totaled between $1.2 billion and $1.9 billion from fiscal year 2011 to 2018, excluding FY2016, which involved a budget impasse.

That’s a lot of money to spend on putting people back in prison, and there’s no “return of investment” here like there is for human services and support programs.

If you’re unconvinced by the moral argument for destigmatization of returning citizens and better interventions regarding recidivism, consider the information above. Clearly, our treatment of the previously incarcerated impacts us all, culturally and economically.

Related reading:

I’d also like to highlight some links I shared in this post’s text:

  • A blog explains the difficulties of returning citizen re-entry.
  • The Prison Policy Initiative calculated unemployment among returning citizens and broke it down demographically.

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