Thursday, April 7, 2011

Spending a Fortune to Incarcerate, But a Pittance to Rehabilitate

The scale of the correctional Leviathan in California is truly staggering.

Joan Petersilia recites some of the round numbers in her essay in Wilson Quarterly’s recent issue on mass imprisonment. 170,000 prisoners being held, at about $50,000 per prisoner per year, leading to $10 billion in annual costs.

In some ways, however, the most disturbing figure is one that is small, not large. California spends less than $3,000 per inmate per year on rehabilitation. Only half of released inmates have participated in any type of program during their time in prison.

To be sure, prison programming cannot be expected to work miracles, especially when broad sociological trends are at work. After all, with skills at a premium in the global economy, it becomes harder and harder for low-skilled ex-offenders to get jobs.

Yet governments have added to the challenges of prisoner reentry into society by passing broad laws excluding all ex-offenders from certain fields, such as education and health care.

Understandably, no one wants a dangerous ex-felon working as a home health aide, or a convicted sex offender taking care of children. Unfortunately, though, the laws impacting ex-offender employment have not been narrowly tailored to achieve those ends.

All in all, these are ingredients in a recipe for recidivism. It should scarcely be surprising that so many people return to prison after release, either for parole violations or new crimes. It’s the well-worn path of least resistance.

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