Some may not want to pay to help felons cope with life outside prison walls, but if we don’t invest many will fall back into a life of crime.
EACH month, the state of Washington releases roughly 700 people from its prisons. These men and women, having served their time, seek a productive life on the outside. Yet within three years, about one-third wind up back in prison on one or more new felony convictions. Their new trials and imprisonment place an additional burden on taxpayers — not to mention the burden their crimes place on victims.
State policymakers, concerned about this cycle, have commissioned studies, convened task forces, and introduced legislation aimed at preventing people from reoffending. Yet the recidivism rate hasn’t gotten any better over the last decade, and in the last year has increased.
If they want to get serious about recidivism, it’s time for them to commit to what we know works.
Prisoners live highly regulated lives. Even if they lack education, social skills, stable mental health, and family support, while they’re in prison they don’t have to worry about finding housing or food. Once they’re released, however, these deficiencies matter. On top of that, they leave with pitiful resources: rusty job skills (if any), poor social networks and less cash than many Seattleites spent on dinner last night. They’re barred from many avenues to housing and employment. In essence, their punishment continues long after their sentence is over.
Since 2005, the Post-Prison Education Program has been giving Washington’s former prisoners hope, and has changed their odds. By helping them enroll in college and meeting their legitimate, frugal needs as they arise — for tuition, books, basic housing, transit and other expenses — we have ensured that former prisoners don’t revert to the anger and desperation that can lead them to crime.
Three-quarters of our students have been classified as high-risk by the corrections system — the category deemed most likely to recidivate. Yet of the students we have served, according to data audited by researchers from the University of Washington Tacoma, only 8 percent have recidivated — a rate one-quarter of the state average. Our students have managed to achieve self-sustaining lives away from crime, as lawyers, scientists, welders, nurses, human-services professionals, nonprofit administrators and more.
Christopher Jones, a former drug addict, had been in and out of the King County Jail on theft and other charges dozens of times before age 25, and found out about the Post-Prison Education Program while in prison. Without it, he said, “I would have been back on the streets. … There were many instances where assistance from the program bridged gaps in front of me. In addition to rent, there was tuition and books, counseling sessions, bus passes, clothing.”
For every one Christopher Jones, there are nine applicants we don’t have the resources to serve. And things don’t end as well for them. Over one decade, we had to turn away 1,500 people who sought our services. Of those, 60 percent recidivated.
Washington state legislators now have the chance to bolster programs like ours — programs that work. House Bill 2025, introduced by a bipartisan group of legislators, would require that the state prioritize evidence-based and research-based practices in allocating anti-recidivism resources, and that existing programs that haven’t made a difference don’t get funded.
Some people oppose public funding for the education of current and former prisoners. Why should my child have to pay for school, they say, if these people do not? What they may not realize is that former prisoners are not allowed to receive the federal loans and financial aid, such as Pell Grants, that are available to all low-income students.
With PPEP’s help, Jones graduated magna cum laude from Washington State University and now works as an electrical engineer for a New Hampshire manufacturing firm. “I’ve been a lot of things in my life,” he said, “but every good thing I have started with me becoming a student.”
The vast majority of our state’s prisoners will be released one day. Our office right now has about 500 applications under consideration. At most, we will be able only to accept and work with 50. By investing in programs that have been proven to work — as HB 2025 paves the way to do — we can ensure that these men and women have the chance to build a stable future.