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A new report on Pennsylvania’s prisons is creating a stir because of what it reveals about the success — or lack thereof — of the state Department of Corrections.

To use its own bureaucratese, the mission of the department is to “reduce criminal behavior by providing individualized treatment and education to offenders, resulting in successful community reintegration through accountability and positive change.”

To accomplish this goal, the department employs 16,000 people and houses close to 50,000 prisoners. The 26 prisons in which it does this are scattered across the state, and it all costs $2 billion a year.

So, each inmate costs $42,000 a year — or $115 a day. For just $7 more each day, you could get a room at The Latham, the boutique hotel on 17th Street, just off Rittenhouse Square.

How good a job does the department do in fulfilling its mission?

Not good at all. While the department does incarceration just fine, it fails to correct.

Sixty percent of inmates released from the system return within three years, because they commit either parole violations or new crimes. The needle on this recidivism rate has been stuck at 60 percent for more than a decade.

And that is not the worst of it. The three-year recidivism rate among inmates under 21 is 78 percent. Closer to home, of the 10,300 Philadelphia inmates released from state prisons between 2006 and 2008, 6,300 were arrested and charged with committing new crimes.

If the department designed a new logo, it would have to include a revolving door.
These numbers come not from critics of the system, but from the department itself. The department’s bureau of planning, research and statistics produced a thorough and revealing study that carries the simple title “Recidivism Report 2013.”

It was officially released last week. It slices the data every which way and does regression analyses on the effectiveness of various treatment and intervention programs.

The stir within the corrections community nationally (yes, there is a corrections community) was created by the study’s finding that when it comes to recidivism, inmates released from prison to the streets do better than those sent to halfway houses.

This defies conventional wisdom, which states than soon-to-be ex-prisoners do better if they experience re-entry through these (supposedly) more structured and beneficial programs.

Halfway houses, a mix of state-owned and for-profit facilities, cost $108 million a year to run. After the study was released, the department decided to re-bid all of its halfway house contracts to include language tying payments to performance, saying recidivism rates must come down.

The study notes that the department could achieve substantial savings if it could reduce the re-incarceration rates. That portion of the report will surely catch the eye of the Gov. Corbett’s budget warriors, who are always engaged in a feral search for ways to cut state spending.

The report does have value as a primer on tweaks that could be made to save money.
But, if you take another step back, the report should set off the bureaucratic equivalent of a moral crisis among policymakers and correction professionals. Despite all the tools and resources available to modern penology, it is failing in its principal mission.

Bret Bucklen, one of the lead researchers on the report, likes to use a quote from his boss, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, to explain it: Suppose you ran an airline that could execute safe landings on only four out of every 10 flights? Would you still be in business?

Department data gives us useful profiles of inmates. Half of them enter prison lacking in basic educational skills. Sixty-five percent have either a drug or alcohol problem. The system provides vocational and academic educational programs. It offers drug and alcohol treatment. It provides them with skill-building jobs. The system churns and churns to fulfill its mission to rehabilitate — and then it fails. Time and time again.

I’m not here to assign blame to the system. The inmates are adults. In the end, they are ultimately responsible for their actions, in and out of prison.

But a report like this has to give the professionals pause. They have a system that runs well in every respect, except when you consider the outcome. Surely, this should prompt some introspection. Which programs work, and which do not? How should we change the way inmates are trained? What kind of support should we give, either in prison, or out of it?

All of these numbers have special relevance to Philadelphia. As AxisPhilly’s Solomon Jones has pointed out, the city is awash with ex-convicts, and more arrive home every day. There are 15,000 inmates from Philadelphia currently serving time in state prisons, and 90% of them will be released someday.

They will be out on the streets, looking for a new future. These numbers suggest that instead, they’ll experience deja vu.

The report is available below:

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Recidivism Report 2013