Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Reducing recidivism makes our communities safer | Opinion

As the chief law enforcement officer of Pennsylvania, I refuse to accept a criminal justice system that fails two-thirds of the time.

Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro
Pa. Attorney General Josh ShapiroRead moreHandout / AG

If you ran a company with a failure rate of 68 percent, how long do you think you would stay in business? My guess — not long.

Sixty-eight percent is the failure rate for our country’s prison system.

When two of every three people emerging from jail are rearrested and return to prison, it is clear our criminal justice system needs reform.

There are 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, and 86,000 of them are in Pennsylvania.

We are stuck in a cycle of people serving time for committed crimes, leaving prison, committing new crimes, and returning to serve more time behind bars.

As Pennsylvania’s chief law enforcement officer, I refuse to accept the chronic rate of recidivism in our system — and my office is taking action to reduce it.

In May 2017, I announced the creation of the Pennsylvania Reentry Council. The primary mission of our reentry efforts, which are coordinated by my Office of Public Engagement, is the successful reintegration into society of returning citizens. The Reentry Council does that by supporting the work of county reentry coalitions and other organizations at the federal and state level.

County reentry coalitions work. When I served as chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, we slashed our recidivism rate from 60 to 17 percent, thanks to a workforce development program funded by a federal grant that involved 315 inmates reentering society.

When the Reentry Council was established, only 21 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties had set up reentry coalitions for their returning residents. Working with the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, our work has supported the creation of six new county reentry coalitions for a total of 27, with more to be announced soon. There is lot more to do, but these are steps in the right direction.

During my time as a member of the Commission on Crime and Delinquency, I promoted reforms that saved taxpayer dollars and increased public safety, including diversionary programs for at-risk youth, mandated drug treatment for nonviolent offenders, and drug courts.

The efforts that the Reentry Council are championing are multifaceted and designed to create real change. Much of the past year has been spent laying the groundwork for that change and identifying barriers to successful reentry to society.

Two real barriers that returning citizens face are finding affordable housing and having the correct documents and identification needed to seek employment and reenter society.

One new reform promoted by the Reentry Council involves the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, which is enhancing existing tax credits for developers who earmark a percentage of housing opportunities for returning citizens.

A second, new Reentry Council initiative involves the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. PennDot has always issued identification cards, including drivers’ licenses, to returning citizens leaving state prisons — but not those leaving county jails. PennDot officials have begun a pilot program to provide IDs to inmates leaving county facilities in York, and the agency plans to replicate this effort across Pennsylvania.

There is much more work to do, and the Pennsylvania Reentry Council is working with county coalitions to identify strategies and expand returning citizens’ access to treatment for underlying conditions, such as mental health, addiction, and trauma, and to help them with job retraining, employment, and education as well.

As the chief law enforcement officer of Pennsylvania, I refuse to accept a criminal justice system that fails two-thirds of the time. If we commit ourselves to reducing that number, we can literally save lives, our communities will be safer, our quality of life will improve, our economic potential will increase, our schools will perform better, and our society will be more fair and just.

Josh Shapiro is the attorney general of Pennsylvania.