By HOPE O’DELL
Capital News Service
LANSING –– The state’s recidivism levels among inmates who’ve been out of prison for less than three years have been on the decline since 2016, and they continue to drop.
In 2020, the recidivism – or return-to-prison – rate was 26.7%, down about 8% from a year earlier, according to the Department of Corrections. The decline is in sharp contrast to the 1998 rate of 45.7%.
“I think it’s through a continued focus on how we’re engaging inmates while they’re on the inside, what kinds of programs we’re offering,” said Heidi Washington, the director of the Corrections Department.
She said the department tries to ensure it offers evidence-based educational, vocational and therapeutic programs to keep its recidivism rate heading lower.
Jennifer Cobbina-Dungy, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, said recidivism is only a limited measure of success for the correctional system.
“If I am struggling to find a good-paying job, if I am homeless, if I have horrible health and mental health issues, if I have a strained or no relationship with my family – that’s not someone who’s successfully integrated back into the community.
“But currently I would be ‘successful’ because I haven’t committed a crime,” she said.
While a declining recidivism rate may signal an improving criminal justice system to some extent, experts say barriers must be removed for released prisoners to go beyond staying out of prison.
Washington said Corrections has focused on employment for those who are released. The department tracks employment for released prisoners and helps them secure jobs.
“We have a huge outreach with employers. We’re heavily focused on bringing employers into the department and encouraging them to provide people with opportunities,” she said.
Cobbina-Dungy highlighted Vocational Village, a Corrections program that houses inmates in the same vocational program together. Inmates can learn job skills like carpentry, cosmetology and robotics.
According to Safe & Just Michigan, a criminal justice reform advocacy group, out of the 500 graduates of Vocational Village’s first two locations, only 10 came back to prison, a recidivism rate of 2%.
“These are all great things because they can help to increase the odds that upon release, one is able to not only get a job, but secure a job that pays a livable wage, and that individuals like and find meaning in,” Cobbina-Dungy said.
On a national level, those who took vocational training in prison were 34% more likely to be employed after release, according to Zoukis Consulting Group, a California criminal law firm.
“So I definitely want to say kudos for that,” Cobbina-Dungy said of the Michigan program. “But there are things that can be done to improve.”
For example, to significantly reduce recidivism, programs need to be available to more inmates, she said.
Vocational Village is available in only 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, the program director for the Michigan Collaborative to End Mass Incarceration, said another piece of the puzzle is providing adequate mental health treatment.
“Prison is traumatic,” he said. “It is a traumatic experience for everybody inside.”
He said lack of support for ex-inmates who undergo trauma in prison or who faced trauma before prison can contribute to their committing new crimes.
According to research in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, over half of male inmates in the U.S. experienced childhood physical trauma.
If such mental health problems are not addressed, Warpehoski said, that can drive a return to prison.
Along with the trauma of incarceration, prisoners face additional challenges after release.
The three biggest are: lack of vital documents, like a driver’s license or Social Security card; discrimination based on their criminal record and restrictions on occupational licensing, Warpehoski said.
That includes checkboxes on housing and employment applications that ask if the applicant has committed a felony, but he said many localities are passing anti-discrimination legislation to prohibit it.
Cobbina-Dungy said discrimination against ex-inmatesreduces their opportunities and clouds their success because they’re still viewed as prisoners, despite how well they do once released.
She said that shifts the marker for what’s expected of released prisoners and prevents them from achieving more than just staying out of prison.
“If we really want to help individuals successfully integrate back into the free world,” she said, “then we’re going to consider other indicators of success. We’re going to look at health and family, employment, housing, civic engagement. We’re going to consider all of these aspects to determine if one is truly successful.”