The path to fewer prisons
Probation and parole programs account for nearly four of five offenders under correctional supervision in the United States. The administration of these programs, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, often reflects inadequate financing, ineffective management, and lack of accountability.
One consequence is high levels of criminal recidivism. According to federal studies, between 37% and 40% of felony defendants were on probation, parole, or pre-trial release when they committed their current crime. These offenders account for about 14.5 million crimes a year, at a cost to victims of nearly $133.5 billion. In Wisconsin, recidivism accounts for about 196,000 crimes a year, costing victims about $1.2 billion.
To reduce recidivism, elected officials need to change fundamentally the management and financing of probation and parole. The alternative is the status quo, where high levels of recidivism lead inevitably and logically to increased emphasis on incarceration.
This study suggests that Wisconsin use a national competition to select and implement a new approach for managing the 68,000 offenders in its community corrections programs. Such a competition would lead either to (i) substantial privatization of the state’s probation and parole programs OR (ii) a rejuvenated, better managed, and more accountable effort by current community corrections staff.
The major reason for seeking a new management approach is the need to reduce recidivism. Even modest gains would produce major benefits: 10% less recidivism by those on probation, parole, and pre-trial release would mean nearly 20,000 fewer crimes a year.
Is such a reduction in crime feasible? Not under Wisconsin’s historic approach to community corrections, where:
- The state spends $1,500 per offender a year to “supervise” about 66,000 probationers and parolees. While many citizens think the corrections system is focused on rehabilitation, a minuscule 2.2% of this amount goes for treatment programs in areas such as alcohol and drug addiction, domestic violence, and sexual dysfunction. The state has effectively abandoned the idea that treatment gets results, despite research that suggests the opposite.
- Past efforts at community corrections reform have been ineffectively managed. The most recent example was the Intensive Sanctions Program (ISP), all but abandoned after seven years of disastrous results and no independent monitoring or evaluation.
- According to an independent audit, the state’s overall management of corrections is seriously flawed. Wisconsin’s Legislative Audit Bureau identified a widespread failure to evaluate the effectiveness of corrections programs or even to generate data on which an evaluation would be possible.
- Elected officials in Wisconsin don’t hold corrections managers accountable for poor results. Despite documented problems of the kind cited above, consequences for managers in Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections are seemingly non-existent.
These circumstances have to change if there is to be less recidivism. Elected officials should:
- Appropriate more money for offender treatment needs;
- Overhaul completely the current, ossified management of community corrections;
- Establish goals for reducing recidivism;
- Hold managers accountable for results.
These goals can be achieved without a net increase in state spending for corrections. Available sources of new funds for treatment programs and better supervision include: more efficient operation of state-managed prisons; more use of privately managed prisons; and reduced administrative costs.
To achieve these goals, the state must be willing to put its probation and parole programs out for competitive, performance-based bids. Potential benefits are highlighted in a recent report from the Clinton Administration’s Department of Justice. Describing operations in Connecticut’s Office of Alternative Sanctions (OAS), researchers for the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance said:
Alternative sanctions programs are operated through OAS contracts with private, nonprofit organizations. Privatization helped to sell this program to Connecticut’s Governor, voters, legislators, press, judges, and corrections system . . . [P]rivatization has a reputation for saving money because, when done correctly, services can be provided without the massive administrative overhead cost that comes with operating under the state government umbrella . . . [P]rivatization allows “small government” advocates to say that they are providing more services to the state with fewer government employees . . . [P]rivatization . . . allows OAS to use organizations that are already pro- viding services and have established credibility . . . Further, shedding the bureaucracy . . . allowed OAS to start and expand programming almost immediately, when it could have taken years had the programs been state operations.
The Justice Department researchers describe another key factor:
Finally, and what is most important — for OAS, its supporters, and the community — privatization makes program providers accountable to OAS. If a contracted service provider is not doing a good job [OAS deputy director] Jim Greene said OAS “can drop them in 30 days.”
In addition to these indicators of increased efficiency and accountability, a 1998 Florida study found statistically significant evidence of less recidivism among private prison releasees.4 As described in Table 1, when compared to a comparable group of releasees from public prison, those in private prison had less recidivism on three different measures.
Wisconsin has a substantial record in reforming programs in areas other than corrections. This record pro- vides evidence that major policy changes often require a new management approach, one that includes the use of more competition and accountability in service delivery. Notable examples include: the nationally recognized W-2 welfare reform, where management of many administrative functions has been transferred to private firms; widespread use of private educational choice and independent charter schools in the City of Milwaukee; and use of private firms to manage key aspects of the child welfare programs in Milwaukee County. Each of these reforms grew from decisions by elected officials to make major changes in service delivery and to rely much more on the private sector.
Chart 1 estimated that nearly 20,000 crimes a year could be avoided in Wisconsin if recidivism were cut 10% among those on probation, parole, and pre-trial release. While research suggests even greater gains are possible, even a 10% reduction
would save Wisconsin citizens $122 million a year. Such savings would offset about 88% of the current cost to the state budget of the community corrections pro- gram.
Opponents of the proposals in this study will point out that because no state has privatized its probation and parole system, there is “no proof” that benefits of the kind described in Charts 1 and 2 are feasible. While true, this is a common refrain when defenders of a failed system seek to avoid the prospect of real change. Identical arguments were offered in 1990, when Wisconsin enacted the nation’s first program of K-12 private school choice, a program that now benefits about 6,000 low-income children and, just as importantly, has begun to shake up the lethargic Milwaukee Public Schools system. The same arguments were heard decades ago, when Wisconsin Progressives pioneered the nation’s first worker’s compensation and unemployment compensation programs.
While it is correct that there is no proof that the proposals in this study will work, elected officials seeking to cut criminal recidivism, and thus reduce the need for new prisons, face another reality if they don’t act. Namely, the status quo offers little prospect of addressing either goal.