Evaluation of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services's Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative.
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An inter-disciplinary team of researchers from the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) will evaluate the Nebraska Department of Correction’s Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI). UNO will conduct a process and outcome evaluation of the program. The purpose of the process evaluation is to examine the accuracy with which the reentry program identifies and selects the target population; the extent to which the program builds effective partnerships between criminal justice, behavioral health, and social service agencies; and the degree to which the various components of the program are implemented as intended. The process evaluation also will identify problems that occurred during each of the three phases of the project, determine the source of these problems, and identify potential solutions. The purpose of the outcome evaluation is to determine whether participation in the reentry program improves offender reintegration and reduces offender recidivism and to identify the conditions under which the program is most likely to accomplish these goals. Additionally, the outcome evaluation will assess the impact of the reentry program on public safety and determine whether the reentry program is cost effective relative to traditional release procedures.
The Reentry Initiative
In 1971, David Rothman, one of the foremost authorities on the history and development of the prison system, wrote that “we have been gradually emerging from institutional responses and one can foresee the period when incarceration will be used still more rarely than it is today” (Rothman, 1971). Two years later, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, which concluded that “the prison, the reformatory and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure,” (National Advisory Commission, 1973: 597) recommended that “no new institutions for adults should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed” (National Advisory Commission, 1973: 358).
By the year 2000, it was clear that Rothman’s prediction would not come true and that the Commission’s recommendations would not be followed. Their calls for reductions in the use of incarceration, which were voiced at a time when the inmate population was just over 300,000, fell on deaf ears. Rather than declining, America’s imprisonment rate, which had fluctuated around a relatively steady mean of 110 per 100,000 for most of the 20th Century, increased every year from 1975 to 2000. In fact, the prison population quadrupled from 1972 to 2000: it increased from 300,000 to almost two million in less than 30 years (Garland, 1999: 5).
One consequence of the so-called “imprisonment binge” (Austin and Irwin, 2001: 1) of the past 30 years has been a steady escalation in the number of offenders who are released from state and federal correctional institutions each year, either because they have been granted release on parole or because they have served their entire sentence and must be released. In fact, more than 600,000 adult men and women—or 1,600 inmates per day—leave state and federal prisons each year (Petersilia, 2003: 2). Many of these ex-inmates leave the institution with serious social and medical problems, including a history of substance abuse and/or mental illness. Most of them do not have marketable employment skills and many of them will have difficulty finding a job, a place to live, and access to medical care. Although these problems may or may not have been addressed while the inmate was incarcerated, in the typical jurisdiction they almost certainly would not be addressed following the inmate’s release from the institution. This is true for inmates who are released on parole as well as those who have “maxed out” their sentences and therefore must be released from prison. Inmates released on parole are supervised by a parole officer who is oriented more toward surveillance than rehabilitation; parole officers are more concerned with ensuring that parolees follow the rules and remain crime-free than in helping them find employment or housing or get into substance abuse treatment. Ex-offenders who have served their entire sentence have no obligation to report to a parole agent or to abide by any other conditions of release. According to Schlosser (1998: 76), most ex-inmates “are given nothing more than $200 and a bus ticket back to the county where they were convicted . . . One day these predatory inmates are locked in their cells for twenty-three hours at a time and fed all their meals through a slot in the door, and the next day they’re out of prison, riding a bus home.”
Given the fact that most offenders had serious needs prior to imprisonment—needs which were not met during incarceration or following release—it is not surprising that many of them become reinvolved in crime. A 2002 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (Langan and Levin, 2002) examined recidivism among 272,111 prisoners who were released in 15 states in 1994. The authors found that 67 percent of the ex-inmates were arrested for at least one serious misdemeanor or felony within three years of release; 47 percent were convicted of a new crime and 52 percent were returned to prison for either a new crime or a technical violation (Langan and Levin, 2002). The study also revealed, however, that most recidivism occurred during the first year following release from prison; over 60 percent of the recidivism events that occurred during the three years following the offender’s release from prison occurred during the first year. Further, the authors of the study noted that the recidivism rates of offenders released in 1994 were higher than those of offenders released ten years earlier, in 1984. These findings led Petersilia (2003: 144) to conclude, that “it appears from the available evidence that persons being released from prison today are doing less well than their counterparts released a decade ago in successfully reintegrating into their communities. More of them are being rearrested; these arrests are occurring more quickly; and as a group, ex-convicts are accounting for a growing share of all serious crimes experienced in the United States.”
Statistics on ex-offender recidivism rates, coupled with growing concerns about the percentage of state and federal budgets devoted to corrections, led to calls for a new approach to prisoner reentry and reintegration. This approach, which is being implemented across the nation, focuses on preparing prisoners and their communities for the prisoners’ inevitable return home. It is an approach that emphasizes programming within the institution to prepare inmates for release; a seamless transition from the institution to a community-based facility and then to the community; and a reentry process designed to prevent recidivism and to help offenders reintegrate into society as responsible and productive citizens. As Travis and his colleagues (Travis et al., 2001:46) note, what is required is a “reexamination of the nexus among the jurisprudence of sentencing, the mission of corrections agencies, the availability and quality of services for prisoners and their families, and the social goal of prison reintegration.”
Nebraska’s Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Program
There is compelling evidence of the need for a comprehensive reentry program in the State of Nebraska. Consistent with trends nationwide, the state’s prison population has more than doubled over the past 20 years. In March of 2003 there were 4,018 men and women incarcerated in Nebraska’s prisons and the prison system was at 132% of its capacity (Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, 2004). As the prison population has escalated, the number of offenders released from prison also has increased. In fiscal year 2002, 2,007 inmates were released from Nebraska’s prisons, compared to only 1,352 in fiscal year 1993. Of the inmates released in 2002, 1,194 (59.5%) were offenders who had served their entire sentences and thus were released without any type of parole supervision and 772 (38.5%) were offenders who were released on parole. Data provided by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) suggests that a substantial portion of these offenders will be returned to prison for a new crime. In fact, a ten-year recidivism study of prisoners released in 1993 revealed that 387 (28.6%) of the 1,352 prisoners were returned to prison in Nebraska for a subsequent offense or as a result of a parole revocation for a felony parole violation. Moreover, the recidivism rate for offenders who were mandatorily discharged (33.5%) was substantially higher than the rate for offenders who were released on parole (21.3%). In the State of Nebraska, in other words, 60 percent of the inmates released each year are not required to report to a parole officer following release; a third of these inmates eventually will be returned to prison for a new crime.
Nebraska’s Department of Correctional Services has received funding from the U.S. Department of Justice to develop, implement, and evaluate a reentry program for serious and violent offenders currently incarcerated in state correctional institutions. The reentry program will provide in-prison and post-release services to male and female offenders who are reentering the Omaha community from Nebraska’s prison system. The goals of the project are to implement a comprehensive reentry strategy that ensures the safety of the community and leads to the reduction of serious, violent crime. These goals will be accomplished by carefully selecting and preparing a group of targeted offenders for reentry; offenders selected for the structured reintegration program will be provided with pre-release and post-release programming and support services.
This pilot project is projected to involve approximately 120 inmates (60 participants and 60 controls) who meet the following criteria:
• age 19 to 35
• convicted of a serious or violent offense, excluding sex offenses
• high risk of recidivism, based on risk assessment instrument
• returning to one of four designated areas within the City of Omaha
(zip codes 68104, 68110, 68111, 68131)
• parole eligibility date less than April 2006
• parole hearing date greater than May 2005
• release date between July 2006 and April 2011
• voluntarily agree to participate in the program
The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Program is a three-phase program. During Phase One, department personnel will use a newly designed risk assessment instrument to determine each inmate’s risk level and to identify high-risk offenders (those who will be eligible for participation in the pilot program). For each offender deemed eligible for the pilot program, department personnel and the offender’s reentry team will prepare a Personalized Reentry Program Plan (PREPP) that addresses the offender’s strengths and weaknesses, identifies appropriate programs and services, and delineates the requirements that must be met by the offender prior to release on parole (eventually a PREPP will be prepared for each new inmate at admission to the institution). For each offender, there will be a reentry team, the composition of which will vary by offender and which will change as the offender progresses through the program. In addition to the offender, the reentry team might include, for example, family members, members of the community to which the offender will return, substance abuse treatment providers, community service providers, law enforcement officials, a case manager from the NDCS, a parole officer, members of the faith-based community, and victim advocates.
During Phase One of the program, male offenders selected for the program will be moved from the Nebraska State Penitentiary and the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution to the Omaha Correctional Center (OCC). At this time, the reentry team will begin exploring community treatment and programming options and will partner with community service providers to develop a community reentry plan for each program participant. The needs of each offender will be reassessed, and the reentry team will modify the PREPP to ensure that the offender’s needs are addressed at OCC and that plans are in place for addressing these needs once the offender is released on parole. Depending upon the offender’s needs, the reentry team will focus on such things as reuniting the offender with family members and social organizations; helping the offender locate adequate housing; and providing linkages to vocational job training and educational services, substance abuse and mental health treatment. Phase One of the program for female offenders will take place at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York, Nebraska.
During Phase Two of the program, male and female offenders will transition first to the Community Correctional Center of Omaha (CCC-O), which is a co-ed work release center, and then to parole. While the offender is housed at CCC-O, the reentry team will prepare a proposed supervision plan designed to ensure a seamless transition from the work release center to supervision on parole. At this stage, the reentry team will include the parole officer who will be assigned to supervise the offender. The community reentry authority will be the Nebraska Board of Parole, which has statutory authority to release offenders on parole into the community, to determine conditions of parole, and to revoke parole if the offender commits a new crime or repeatedly violates the conditions of parole. The reentry team will include all Board-recommended programming and security measures in the PREPP. Once the offender has been released on parole, he will be linked to the programs (e.g., substance abuse treatment) and services (e.g., job training) designed to meet his long-term needs and assure success on parole. The reentry team will work with the parole officer to ensure that the offender has access to the services and programs he needs and to monitor the offender’s progress on parole. Phase Three of the program will commence when the offender is released from parole. During this phase, the re-entry team will continue to monitor the offender’s progress and extended, continuous support from the community will replace formal supervision.
Austin, James and John Irwin. 2001. It’s About Time: America’s Imprisonment Binge. Third edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Garland, David. 1999. “Punishment and Society Today,” Punishment & Society 1: 5-10.
Langan, Patrick and David Levin. 2002. Recidivism in Prisoners Released in 1994. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals. 1973. Task Force Report on Corrections. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Petersilia, Joan. 2003. When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rothman, David J. 1971. The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the Republic. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.
Schlosser, Eric. 1998. “The Prison-Industrial Complex,” Atlantic Monthly, December, pp. 51-77.
Travis, Jeremy, Amy Solomon, and Michelle Waul. 2001. From Prison to Home: The Dimensions and Consequences of Prisoner Reentry. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.