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Some Good News About State Prisons

The following article was sent out in my City View Newsletter, which you can sign up to receive here.

The state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) has been in the news a lot recently because of the data errors over prisoner release dates. But there’s another little noticed story from the DOC that is very worthy of highlighting.

In 2010, the City Council hosted UCLA Professor Mark Kleiman at Seattle’s Town Hall to talk about his new book on how to have less crime and less punishment. It was a packed event. Professor Kleiman talked about an innovative approach in Hawaii for how parole violators were supervised involving a shift away from sporadic and severe sanctions when parole violations were discovered to more modest sanctions applied consistently.

The old model: you may have multiple parole violations, you likely won’t get caught, but when you do you’ll be in big trouble (weeks, months or even years back in jail or prison).

The new model: if you violate the terms of your release, you will be held accountable for your actions immediately, but sanctions will be much more modest (a day or two in jail).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the new model was way more effective at curbing criminal behavior, while at the same time saving resources and reducing jail time. What’s not to like?

After Kleiman’s visit, my office worked with the Department of Corrections to pilot in Seattle a similar approach for the supervision of individuals released from prison. A year later, the new approach to community supervision, called “Swift and Certain,” showed promise and the DOC rapidly expanded it statewide.

Now, three years later, we have the first statewide evaluation of Swift and Certain. The results are very encouraging, both for public safety and criminal justice reform:

  1. The new Swift and Certain program improved public safety because of a significant drop in offender recidivism. Program participants were 20% less likely to incur a new criminal conviction; 30% lower if only felony crimes are included in the calculation. In other words, this program caused a greater proportional reduction in felony crimes than it did misdemeanors.
  2. Swift and Certain participants had fewer confinement days following a release violation than individuals who were under the former model of supervision. Swift and Certain participants were 20% less likely to be confined for a violation. And when looking at only those who did commit a violation, that group saw an average reduction of confinement by 49 days compared to those who committed a violation under the older model.  For the 4,838 individuals reviewed in the evaluation, this translates into a total reduction of roughly 80,000 jail days. That is 80,000 more nights, 11,400 more weeks, 219 more years these individuals can continue to put their lives back together after serving their initial prison sentence. And thousands more have come through this program since the evaluation was completed, making an even larger impact.
  3. Swift and Certain has led to greater investment in treatment programs by redirecting some of the savings from fewer jail days to chemical dependency treatment and cognitive behavioral therapies.
  4. Swift and Certain leads to a cost savings of $16 for every $1 spent on the new model of supervision.

The Swift and Certain approach to offender release and supervision works. It treats offenders with dignity, holds them accountable quickly, and imposes sanctions when necessary that corrects behavior. The result: an improvement in public safety and more successful reintegration back into the community for the offender.

Of course, Swift and Certain is not enough by itself. It only affects those who have already been imprisoned at least once; it doesn’t lower the incarceration rate in the first place. That kind of reduction will come from our investments in successful upstream crime prevention efforts, like the Nurse-Family Partnership and high-quality preschool.

The Study of the Swift and Certain program shows that we can have less crime and less punishment at the same time. It just takes a collaborative approach, hard work, a true shift in mindset from punitive to rehabilitative, and a commitment to following the evidence.

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