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The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts

May 29, 2017 - CommonWealth - Worcester County reentry program shows promising results to reduce recidivism, save money
How to stop prison's revolving door

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Mary Brolin and Janice Yost
May 29, 2017

A NEW REPORT from MassINC points to a major challenge for Massachusetts state government. Spending on corrections continues to increase significantly even as the inmate population declines.

At the same time, the cycle of reincarceration remains untenably high. In 2011, Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) facilities reported that 44 percent of individuals released from prison were reincarcerated within three years post-release, at an average annual incarceration cost of $53,041 per individual.

The revolving door at our state prisons and county houses of correction is in nobody’s best interest. It shortchanges inmates of a full and fair opportunity to become productive and law-abiding citizens once they serve their sentences and return to the community.

It disproportionately impacts the social fabric and public safety of communities of color. And it creates significant additional expense to taxpayers, not to mention the opportunity cost of spending on corrections instead of other important programs and services.

What is needed is a solution that can significantly lower the recidivism rate and that costs less than incarcerating those who offend again. Just such a program was created in Worcester County six years ago, and the data demonstrate that it was successful on both fronts.

Worcester Initiative for Supported Reentry, or WISR, supported the reentry of 152 men released from state prisons and the Worcester County House of Correction between 2012 and 2016. The program reduced recidivism by 47 percent three years post-release.

WISR was led by human services agency Advocates, Inc., with funding from The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts. The program partnered closely with the state DOC, state Parole Board, Worcester Superior Court Probation, and the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office and House of Correction to provide comprehensive reentry support.

For individuals returning to the community, housing can be an obstacle, as many do not have a home upon release. Many also suffer from substance use and/or mental health disorders.

Securing employment immediately upon release can be also challenging. Add the stigma of having a criminal record, and it is easy to see how former inmates can become discouraged and resort to crime.

Recognizing those realities, WISR provided participants with pre-release assessments and individualized service plans tailored to their strengths and needs. Post-release, participants received supported connections to existing, community-based primary health, substance abuse, mental health, housing, and employment resources.

Not everyone was successful, but the evidence demonstrates WISR’s effectiveness.

A Brandeis University evaluation found that WISR reduced recidivism by 47 percent three years post-release and saved more than $375,000 per 100 participants, providing a 59 percent return on investment. These projected savings do not include savings on arrests, processing, court procedures, or victimization costs. WISR costs $6,327 per participant.

All WISR participants were housed within one day of release, eliminating a major stumbling block faced by recently-released inmates.

Of the WISR participants who were referred to substance abuse services, 93 percent used the services, and 75 percent of those referred for mental health services received assistance.

Equally impressive, 62 percent of the WISR participants became employed post-release; of those, nearly three-quarters were continuously employed for one year or longer.

In addition, WISR reduced racial and ethnic disparities. Similar to the share of persons of color within Massachusetts DOC facilities, 58 percent of WISR participants were persons of color. Three years post-release, WISR participants of color were less likely than white participants to be reincarcerated.

The success seen by WISR should be continued in Worcester County and replicated in the Commonwealth’s 13 other counties. Existing funds in the proposed FY 18 state budget for community corrections services could be directed for this purpose.

With the inmate population shrinking and the cost of corrections increasing, there is a clear opportunity to make a public investment in evidence-based approaches with documented success in reducing recidivism.

The data are in, and the WISR model works. One WISR participant noted, “I’ve never felt this good about myself before. I don’t know why WISR believed in me, but I’m so glad they did.”

The WISR program should now be scaled up statewide to help more released inmates, build stronger communities, and achieve significant cost savings.

Mary F. Brolin, Ph.D. is a scientist and lecturer at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management and lead author of “A Wiser Approach to Reentry: Three-Year Post-Release Evaluation Findings for WISR.” Janice B. Yost, Ed.D. is the founding president of The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts.  A copy of the full report can be found on The Health Foundation’s website.