NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Columbus, Ohio. While numbers are down in some places, the prison population across the United States remains enormous and enormously expensive. Eventually, of course, almost all those men and women will be released. Ohio is among several states that have decided to put scarce resources into programs designed to reduce the chances that those ex-convicts will commit new crimes and go back behind bars.
Over a three-year period, the rate of recidivism is down 11 percent here, and there are similarly significant numbers from Texas, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Oregon and Vermont. We'd like to hear from former prisoners. What made the difference to keep you from returning to prison? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Ohio at the front lines of the War of 1812, but first recidivism, and we begin with Alan Johnson, a reporter for the Columbus-Dispatch, where he covers criminal justice and Ohio politics. He's with us here at the studios of member station OSU, and nice to have you on the program.
ALAN JOHNSON: Thank you very much.
CONAN: And can you see anything different given these recidivism programs when you go inside to visit prisons?
JOHNSON: I'm not sure you can see it. I think it's more in the numbers, and that's kind of where I fall into it because I have been covering prisons for 20 years. So just hanging around for that long, you get a trend for things. Ten, 15 years ago, we were building prisons, and now we're either closing prisons or selling prisons, and the numbers are finally going down.
So it's quite a turnaround, and it's been over a two-decade period, but it is going, in my opinion, in the right direction.
CONAN: So what's working?
JOHNSON: Well, what's working is I think that the state finally realized, and I think you're going to have a state senator on her earlier who's one of the vanguard of this, that the lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-keys philosophy is no longer - it really doesn't work rehabilitation-wise, and it certainly doesn't work financially.
And building more prisons, stiffening the law, lengthening the sentences just wasn't working. So they kind of realized, I think pushed a bit by the financial of it, maybe more than a bit, that they had to relax the laws a little bit, make it a little bit easier for people to get out and not to come back. So they have done that.
CONAN: Well, what kind of programs are they instituting to help those ex-cons stay ex?
JOHNSON: Well for one thing, they were realizing that some of the programs they were training prisoners for they couldn't get a job. In other words, you would be trained to be a barber or to be - have a license in plumbing or electrical work, and you would get out and find that Ohio law prohibited you from getting that license because we had what they call, fancy words, collateral sanctions. It just means roadblocks or obstacles to getting back to work after you get out. And of course...
CONAN: If you have a felony on your record.
JOHNSON: Yes, exactly. If you get out, you don't get a job, you're almost immediately falling prey to getting back into the habits you were in before, and pretty soon you're going to be back in lockup.
CONAN: So, well, what kinds of programs or what kinds of jobs are they being trained for now?
JOHNSON: Well, they're being trained for many of the same things, but they flipped it on the other end. Senator Seitz and some of the other legislators fought for a couple years, and they finally got through a law that takes away many of those sanctions.
I forget the number, but there were hundreds of them, literally, built into criminal law saying if you have this felony, you can't do this, you can't get this license, you can't become a contractor. You couldn't even become a security guard for a graveyard, and I'm not joking.
So they changed the law to make it a little easier for people to get jobs, to keep jobs. You could keep your driver's license, for example, in many cases, or get it back actually, whereas before you couldn't. It just made it silly to try and get a job if you had no transportation to get to the job if you even got the job.
CONAN: But the arrow is not entirely all in the direction of prison reform. Some sentences continue to get lengthened due to various reforms, and the state sold one of its prisons last year, as you mentioned, privatized it, and that caused a lot of controversy.
JOHNSON: It did, and recently - kind of off the topic - but recently there was a report on that or an audit of that, and they have many, many problems with this private prison that's been sold to a private operator, Corrections Corporation of America.
CONAN: We want to hear from those of you who have gotten out of jail and stayed out. What worked to keep you out? 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com. And let's see if we can begin with Andy(ph), and Andy's with us from South Bend, Indiana.
CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Andy.
ANDY: How are you today?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you. Go ahead.
ANDY: Sure. I was in the federal prison system for six years. I was in the federal prison camp in Terre Haute, Indiana. So my exposure really was a little different. And we had everything ranging from drug convictions to tenured inmates who were on their way, working their way down the slope to a lot of drug convictions, as well, too, a lot of white-collar crime.
But my experience is only with the federal system, and I was one of those people who was very, very fortunate that - literally getting off the bus from the halfway house or for the bus to get to the halfway house, an old customer of mine offered me a position, and that's where I still am an employee today.
And - but I had a college degree and background in finance and business. So, I mean, that was very, very helpful, and certainly, you know, kids to come home to and relatives to help take care of, and I had no desire to go back.
But my experience where I was at is preparation was dirt poor. And where they really should be in the federal system targeting inmates very, very early when they get in, they don't really, outside of forcing people who don't have GEDs to get a GED.
But you're at it for so many years, two or three years, and you still don't get it, it's the inmate's option whether or not to pick it up. And because of funding problems within the federal system, if you don't have something like a UNICOR program, which at Terre Haute we did, which was the national bus center, there really is very, very little by way of skill formation, and they wait until the last 18 months to run you through a series of little classes to say hey, you need to start thinking about time to get out.
But my personal opinion is I was just the very fortunate and determined individual, but I saw people who left come back on violation, and people I was in the halfway house with, I saw no change in their attitudes. And given when I came out it was a terrible economy in 2009, I just consider myself very fortunate.
CONAN: Well, Andy, continued good luck to you, and thanks very much for the call. He raises a couple of interesting points, Alan Johnson. I don't know how familiar you are with the federal system.
JOHNSON: Not as much, but go ahead.
CONAN: Well, go - I was just going to say that the education part of that, I know that's a big part of the system here in Ohio.
JOHNSON: It is, and the good and the bad is that there are a lot of programs. The bad is that they're backlogged. The state is trying to correct that, to get more teachers, more programs, more training, but there is a backlog at many of the prisons. They have to wait months and months sometimes to get in those systems.
So they realize the value of the training, and it's just kind of getting the resources now to line up with the need.
CONAN: In fact I've read I think in one of your pieces that the line to get into the education program is longer than the number of people already in the program.
JOHNSON: Right, right, it's a challenge, and they are doing, I think, a good job in trying to switch things around, but it's not an overnight switch from a system that has 50,000 inmates in it.
CONAN: And the other part that I thought was interesting: Women tend to come into prisons better educated than their male counterparts and more interested in education.
JOHNSON: Yes, and I'm sure there's more research to be done on that, but they do participate more. I just think that they are more - perhaps more committed to doing better when they get out than the male counterparts are.
CONAN: These changes don't come about without investment, without money.
JOHNSON: Exactly, and I was just noting you had asked earlier what the state had done. They have spent $20 million on improving the community corrections facilities and programs, which means that you might actually go to one of those instead of prison, or you might go to one of those after prison so you can be in the community.
You might just be able to go during the week, as opposed to weekends. There are a lot of different options at a community program to do, and the state did spend $20 million on that, and I think that's another reason they've been more successful.
CONAN: Bill Seitz is a Republican state senator here in Ohio. He represents the 8th District, and he sponsored legislation to reform sentencing and joins us now by phone from his office in Cincinnati. Senator Seitz, good of you to be with us today.
STATE SENATOR BILL SEITZ: Glad to be with you.
CONAN: And I understand that at one time tough on crime could've described your position, as well. What changed your mind?
SEITZ: Well, it's not so much a matter of being soft on crime as it is a matter of being smart on crime. What basically happened in my very conservative county is that the voters were asked on two separate occasions in the last 10 years to support a tax levy for the construction of new and larger jails.
And both times, by substantial margins, the voters said no. So I began to investigate other possibilities for dealing with the problem, and there is fortunately a wealth of evidence-based practices that are being adopted across the country that actually reduce the recidivism rate and also relieve jail overcrowding and do so by reliance on community corrections and by reliance on programs that expand education and job training for people while they are incarcerated and do so by keeping some of the nonviolent offenders out of prison in the first place.
And it turns out that through our adoption of these measures in Ohio, we have substantially reduced our jail overcrowding. We are projected to save $578 million in avoided costs between now and 2015. And we now have the second-lowest recidivism rate in the entire country.
So these policies not only save taxpayers money, but they also are smart on crime because when you reduce the recidivism rate, you are being smart on crime. You are protecting communities, and you will have less crime than if you had pursued the old paradigm.
CONAN: Yet when - despite all this evidence showing that these kinds of reforms work, when you proposed your sentencing reform, that was not supported in the legislature.
SEITZ: It was a tough slog. It took about three years to get done. I worked with both the then-Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, and then more recently with the Republican governor, John Kasich. And my biggest obstacles were: number one, the opposition of county prosecutors, whose role it is to lock people up and make sure they stay in jail; and secondly a great deal of timidity on the part of many of my colleagues who were afraid that if someone did not go to jail or got out early that otherwise would have gone to jail or not got out early, and that person reoffended, then that would be bad politically for them were they to vote for such a measure.
And so we had to overcome that timidity by explaining that while I cannot guarantee zero percent recidivism, I can show that these kinds of policies reduce the rate at which offenders reoffend.
And finally that won the day, perhaps because we were facing an $8 billion state budget deficit at the time, and...
CONAN: Well, Senator Seitz, stay with us. We're going to have to return to that after we come back from a short break. We're talking about what some states, including Ohio, are doing to reduce the recidivism. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Well over half of all former prisoners in this country wind back behind bars within three years of their release. It's a persistent and expensive problem for states. Many of them, including here in Ohio, are now looking for better ways to spend that money, often on programs that focus on keeping ex-convicts out of prison.
We're talking today about what some of those states are doing, what works and what doesn't. We'd like to hear from former prisons: What made the difference to keep you from returning to prison? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are Alan Johnson, who covers criminal justice and Ohio politics for the Columbus-Dispatch; and Ohio State Senator Bill Seitz, a Republican who represents the 8th District and sponsored legislation on sentencing reform. And let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation, and let's go to Brian(ph), and Brian's with us from Greensboro, North Carolina.
BRIAN: Yes, good morning. I was in prison for 20 months in North Carolina, back in 1999 I got out. And what has kept me out, because there were no real programs in the state prison that would - I think that would help. There was a GED program, but I was educated, so I didn't need that.
But really it was just I didn't want to be there. You know, I got out, and a guard told me that, well you'll be back. And that was almost the impetus for me to stay out. You know, I just was determined not to go back to that horrible environment.
And so I went - you know, I was in a homeless shelter and got some aid from them. They helped get me ID, you know, food stamps, helped me with getting employment. And then I got a job, got a place to stay, and I've gotten better jobs over the years, gone back to school. And I have just - I'm just mortally afraid of doing anything to get myself in that position again. So it was just really a force of will.
CONAN: So scared straight might be a descriptor.
BRIAN: Very descriptive, yes. I wanted nothing more to do with it. It was a horrible environment. And, you know, I didn't feel like that it was - it certainly wasn't good for me or my family or the state or anybody for me to be in prison for doing something stupid, and that's essentially what it was. I went in there for doing something stupid, and I didn't want to be stupid anymore.
JOHNSON: A quick question: You mentioned family. I'm curious, did family visit you? Was that part of the process that made you want to stay out? Because I found that I think the more visits with family, the more likely it is that someone stays out.
BRIAN: Well, for me, that's contrary to me. My family basically abandoned me because they're embarrassed by my position. And again, a lot of it was just my determination to beat the odds despite all the things against me, my family going against me, my - you know, everything seemed to be against me. Even employment was very difficult to come by because there is legalized discrimination in this country for offenders or ex-offenders.
It's a form of - I mean, to be an offender, you're handicapped. But it's legal in this country to discriminate based on having done something in your past. You're never forgiven. But I went - you know, I decided it didn't matter. I was going to do whatever it took within reasonable means to do better and better.
And now I'm a truck driver. I make a good wage, and I, you know, I follow the law. I do what I'm supposed to.
CONAN: Brian, thanks very much for the call, and safe driving.
BRIAN: Thank you.
CONAN: And Senator Seitz, I think both of the callers we've had on the line who told us about their experiences emphasize something very important. Yes programs are important, yes education is important. Personal responsibility is also important.
SEITZ: It certainly is, and that caller is to be commended for having the willpower to rise up and become a productive citizen, notwithstanding being abandoned by his family. So he is to be commended for that. Many folks don't have that level of willpower.
One of the things that he said that's absolutely true, though, and that we tackled in our most recent legislation passed this June, is the obstacles that these folks face to finding gainful employment when they get out. And so what we did in Ohio this past June is pass a law that allows ex-cons who have kept their noses clean for some period of time after serving their sentence to go back to court and apply for and receive a certificate of qualifications for employment.
That doesn't guarantee them employment, but they can take that certificate to any employer, public or private, and if that employer should hire that person, that employer will be immunized from tort liability on the theory of negligent hiring.
That's important because many employers do not hire ex-cons because they are afraid that they, the employer, will be sued if that ex-con screws up after being employed. So what we're trying to do is facilitate individualized consideration of these ex-offenders who have rehabilitated themselves by removing a principal impediment to their employment.
And it's just now getting under way. We'll see how it goes. But we think that's important. At the same time, what we did in our bill was direct many of our state licensing agencies not to automatically debar people from consideration for licensure merely because they had a prior conviction. They will now be required in most circumstances to give individualized consideration to what that crime was and whether it truly should bar them from licensure or whether they should be allowed to get a license for things like truck driver, cosmetologist, construction worker and so forth.
CONAN: And if there was - we're going to let you go in just a second, but I just wanted to ask: If there was one more reform you could enact by a wave of your magic wand, what would it be?
SEITZ: Well, if I had a magic wand, I would wave it and demand personal responsibility among folks so that we never got into this situation to begin with, because I think many times young people in particular do not realize what a horrible existence awaits them in prison.
So if I were to wave a magic wand, I would speak to mainly that younger cohort of folks and urge them to think twice before they do those things that put them behind the eight ball, oftentimes for life, either in the prison system or facing obstacles to employment and gainful citizenship post-conviction.
CONAN: Senator Seitz, thanks very much for your time today.
SEITZ: Thank you.
CONAN: Bill Seitz, a state senator from Ohio, joined us from his office in Cincinnati. Michael Thompson is director of the Justice Center at the Council on State Governments, the group that put out the recent report on the drop in recidivism in Ohio and several other states, and he's with us from Studio 3A there in Washington, D.C. Nice to have you with us today.
MICHAEL THOMPSON: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And we're talking about Ohio. Is what's happening here similar to the kinds of programs that you've documented in several other states?
THOMPSON: Absolutely. I think what we're seeing in Ohio is in many ways a harbinger of things to come across the country. In fact, many states have already made double-digit percentage drops in their recidivism rates, that is their reincarceration rates. And we're seeing many states now following suit in terms of what Ohio's doing.
So I think we are actually definitely headed towards a position where we used to talk about recidivism rates being this stubbornly high rate that was impossible to change, and now we're seeing many states across the country demonstrate that we can actually have a major impact on success rates for people released from prison.
CONAN: And I was looking at the statistics in your report, and the ones that stuck out for me, yes we saw all those percentage numbers, but there was also a chart that counted the number of people who did not return, statistically, had the recidivism rates stayed where they were.
THOMPSON: That's right. I mean, the point was made earlier that in many ways, states can't afford to keep growing their prisons. It's a Pac-Man in state budgets; it's eating into other spending priorities. It is second-fastest-growing line item, second to health care, in state budgets across the country.
And when we look at what's driving the prison population in many cases, it's the failure rate of people released from prison. And what we see is by making just small-percentage reductions in the failure rates, we can have an enormous impact on the prison population.
The Pew Charitable Trusts, for example, calculated that just a 10-percent change in the recidivism rate in a number of large states would generate savings on the magnitude of hundreds of millions of dollars.
CONAN: And it's 1,200 people here in Ohio, north of that, according to statistics, that fewer people in prison than would have been otherwise. And Alan Johnson, as you look around the situation in the state, surely even - well, it was not your words but State Senator Seitz, who said timid legislators ought to be able to look at those numbers and see wait a minute, we can save a lot of money, and boy, the budgets are tight.
JOHNSON: Yes, and I think that is probably the turning point because I've covered this for a very long time, and they wanted, as I said, lock them up, throw away the key. But I think that they finally realized that this was just unbearable. And when I started covering prisons, there were less than 30,000, and now there are nearly 50,000, and that's down from a top of 51,000.
So and it - I forget the rate they have to pay per day, the taxpayers, for this, but it's an enormous amount. It is, as Michael said, a Pac-Man that does gobble up an enormous amount of the budget. And Ohio just couldn't afford it anymore, and legislators I think finally saw the light.
CONAN: It's interesting, Michael Thompson, you can look at other factors, as well, the impact on communities of having so many people taken out of the community, the inherent unfairness, as some people see it, that targets certain elements of the community. But as you look at these numbers, why aren't other states doing similar kinds of things?
THOMPSON: Well, I think other states are looking at states like Ohio, at states like North Carolina and saying, we absolutely need to follow in the footsteps of those places. I look at a state like West Virginia, for example, just bordering Ohio, and there they're facing one of the fastest-growing prison populations in the country even though they have an aging population and not a fast population growth. In fact, I think it's level or even declining.
And West Virginians are asking, why are we looking at building more prisons when, just on the border, Ohio and Kentucky, for example, have taken steps to actually check the prison growth and actually employ strategies that we think will buy more public safety than just simply on a path to building more prisons?
CONAN: Alan Johnson, even those numbers, as we pointed out before, are not stopping the mandatory sentencing, which keeps people...
CONAN: ...in prison for such a long time. There was one change administratively in the way the judges have to handle minimum sentences that has resulted in even longer sentences here in the state of Ohio. Those things are not changing anytime soon.
JOHNSON: No. But one of the changes they did do was, in the old days, they had good time and bad time. Good time was if you behaved yourself in prison, you could get out early; bad time, you didn't. You stayed longer. That went away for flat sentencing. You went in for 20 years, you stayed 20 years.
They've kind of rolled that back a little bit with your previous guest, Senator Seitz. They now have a modified good time credit. I don't call it that, but it's a credit that if you - involved in programs, you do education, you do training, you can earn a little bit off of each month of your sentence up to a maximum.
So we've kind of rolled it back, and I think that's where he was talking about, the timid legislators earlier because that smacks of soft on "crime," quote/unquote, which many legislators are still afraid of. But, again, it was the kind of unstoppable force, an insurmountable object, and they came together, and I think it's finally going in the right direction.
CONAN: Michael Thompson, yes, making programs available to prisoners that might not be available, in some instances, to other people. For example, I think Ohio is among those states that prohibits higher education. Yes, you can get your GED. You can even get your high school diploma as a few do. But you cannot go on to college studies while you're in prison.
JOHNSON: Yes, that's correct. We're one of the states, and, Michael, you might know more about that fully than I do.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I actually believe that Ohio is one of the states that does have postsecondary education for inmates, and there are a number of states that really are emphasizing that and that we have seen an impact on recidivism. And I know a lot of people say, well, wait a minute, why should we be providing college education to someone who's incarcerated?
But what we have found is that, as many folks know, it's really that - as one of the callers noted, who'd been incarcerated - it's that postsecondary degree that really improves the odds of employment. And frankly, it's other inmates seeing people in prison get a college degree that then encourages them to become literate, to get their GED because they realize there is a pathway out to higher education. But, indeed, many states do not have that postsecondary education opportunity, and I think we see real opportunities missed than to reduce recidivism.
CONAN: We're talking about the costs of corrections, a spur to reform programs and decrease recidivism. Our guests are Alan Johnson, a reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, and you just heard Michael Thompson, director of the Justice Center at the Council on State Governments. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get Brett(ph) on the line, Brett with us from Grand Rapids.
BRETT: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I appreciate it. And thank you for all the work that you gentlemen have been doing over the years. I greatly appreciate it.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much. Go ahead.
BRETT: I'm ex-prisoner in Michigan, Michigan Department of Corrections. They recently implemented the MPRI program, Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative. And Michigan - in Michigan, the pendulum has swung from lock them up and throw away the key to let's try to, you know, effect some sort of change so we can affect the recidivism. And it's been doing a wonderful job here in Michigan.
I myself got my prison number back in 1994 and have been in and out of prison continuously the last time. It was almost eight years that I was in. But during that eight years, what I had found is that there was a lot of men - because they started the programming for the re-entry, and there was a lot of programming in there that started to address like emotional healing, and not just the distorted thinking, you know, the criminal thinking because that's just - that's old, but fundamentally addressing the human issues of each individual person, of, you know, taking a look at their past, taking a look at how their actions and empathy and what they were looking at and how they were damaging themselves and community and family.
And those programs were the most significant and produced the most significant change for me because not only did it produce healing in myself, it allowed me to effect a healing in those around me and my family and my network of people that I know.
And now that I'm back in the community and off of parole, and now in school, mind you, and getting a degree in religion so I could become a chaplain and go back into the community and effect that same kind of change, that's how important these programs are because it fundamentally - and, I mean, it's a bad place to be in prison to begin with, and I'm not saying what I did was right.
But what I'm saying is these programs fundamentally can change these men - because I've watched the change in them, myself included - transform their lives while they're in prison and give them a whole new perspective on why they're there and what they need to do to get out.
In fact, it was Representative Condino, who became a parole board member, who gave me my parole. And I made him a promise because I told him that I realized that every action I do, from the moment I get that parole to the time I get off, is going to affect every other parole that they hand out behind me. And I kept my promise because I understand what's with that responsibility and that promise. For some reason, it's just something I didn't grasp before.
CONAN: Well, Brett, it's an interesting call. And, Alan Johnson, it raises a host of questions, and one of which is the - and, Brett, thanks very much for joining us - it raises the question about mental health treatment for prisoners who suffer from these problems at a much higher rate than people on the outside.
JOHNSON: Mental health problems, concurrent with drug and alcohol problems, it's all a very bad mixture when they come into prison. And the mental health issues are very serious if he has been struggling with that to deal with it because they do have, you know, psychiatric programs and counseling programs. But I've covered many, many inmates. I've covered executions. I've seen how troubled many of these inmates are, and prison becomes a school to learn how to be better criminals sometimes. So they need that mental health treatment to get past those obstacles as well as their drug and alcohol addiction.
CONAN: Here's an email from Claire in San Francisco: My brother was a prisoner in California, and before he was granted parole, he was looking for materials to help him adjust to being out. There was little in the way to assist him because prisoners are restricted from all but written material. We found a great program for him that really helped him to prepare for the release called the Prisoner Assistance Scholastic Service. Strongly urge families and inmates to check it out for their loved ones applying for parole or getting ready to be released, especially after long incarcerations. And thanks for that suggestion.
Our thanks as well to Michael Thompson of the Justice Center on the Council on State Governments. He joined us in Studio 3A in Washington. And Alan Johnson, a reporter for The Columbus Dispatch. He joined us here at WOSU in Columbus. When we comeback, the fast-breaking news of the War of 1812. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.