LANSING — State recidivism levels among inmates out of prison for less than three years have been declining since 2016, and they continue to decline.
In 2020, the recidivism rate – or return to prison – was 26.7%, down about 8% from the previous year, according to the Department of Corrections. The drop contrasts sharply with the 1998 rate of 45.7%.
“I think it’s because of a continued focus on how we engage inmates while they’re inside, what kinds of programs we offer,” said Heidi Washington, director of the Department of Services correctional.
She said the department tries to ensure it offers evidence-based educational, vocational and therapeutic programs to keep its recidivism rate down.
Jennifer Cobbina-Dungy, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, said recidivism is only a limited measure of the success of the corrections system.
“If I’m struggling to find a well-paying job, if I’m homeless, if I have horrible health and mental health issues, if I have a strained or non-existent relationship with my family, that’s not is not someone who managed to reintegrate into the community. .
“But right now I would be ‘successful’ because I didn’t commit a crime,” she said.
While a falling recidivism rate may signal an improvement in the criminal justice system to some extent, experts say barriers need to be removed for released prisoners to go beyond staying out of jail.
Washington said corrections has focused on employing those who are released. The department monitors the employment of released prisoners and helps them find jobs.
“We are very open to employers. We work hard to bring employers into the department and encourage them to provide opportunities for people,” she said.
Cobbina-Dungy pointed to Vocational Village, a correctional program that houses inmates from the same vocational program together. Inmates can learn vocational skills like carpentry, cosmetology and robotics.
According to Safe & Just Michigan, a criminal justice reform advocacy group, of the 500 graduates from the first two Vocational Village sites, only 10 have returned to prison, a 2% recidivism rate.
“These are all good things because they can help increase the chances that on release one can not only find a job, but also get a job that pays a living wage, and that people love and find meaning in.” , Cobbina- said Dungy.
Nationally, those who received job training in prison were 34% more likely to be employed after release, according to Zoukis Consulting Group, a California criminal law firm.
“So I really want to say kudos for that,” Cobbina-Dungy said of Michigan’s program. “But there are things that can be done to improve.”
For example, to dramatically reduce recidivism, programs need to be accessible to more inmates, she said.
Vocational Village is only available at three of the state’s 29 prisons: Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, and Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti
Chuck Warpehoski, program director for the Michigan Collaborative to End Mass Incarceration, said another piece of the puzzle was providing adequate mental health treatment.
“Prison is traumatic,” he said. “It’s a traumatic experience for everyone inside.”
He said the lack of support for ex-prisoners who experience trauma in prison or who experienced trauma before prison can contribute to the commission of new crimes.
According to a study by the US National Library of Medicine, more than half of male prisoners in the United States experienced physical trauma as children.
If those mental health issues aren’t addressed, Warpehoski said, it can lead to a return to jail.
Besides the trauma of incarceration, inmates face additional challenges after release.
The three most important are: lack of vital documents, such as a driver’s license or social security card; discrimination based on their criminal record; and restrictions on professional licensing, Warpehoski said.
This includes checkboxes on housing and employment applications that ask if the applicant has committed a crime, but he said many localities are passing anti-discrimination legislation to ban it.
Cobbina-Dungy said discrimination against ex-convicts reduces their opportunities and obscures their success because they are still considered prisoners, despite their performance once released.
She said it changes the marker of what is expected of released prisoners and prevents them from accomplishing more than just staying out of prison.
“If we really want to help people integrate successfully into the free world,” she says, “then we’ll look at other indicators of success. We are going to look at health and the family, employment, housing, civic engagement. We will consider all of these aspects to determine if any of them are really successful.