Keeping inmates out of prison: Programs in Pinal, Maricopa counties tackle recidivism

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Prison systems in the nation may be far from perfect, and in some states, that is more of the case.

According to a study by the PrisonEd Foundation, Arizona ranked No. 30 out of 45 states looked at to determine which are better at helping recently released inmates return to society.

Arizona’s neighbors — California (No. 1), Nevada (No. 2), and New Mexico (5) — are way more friendlier to recently released inmates.

PrisonEd looked at four different data points to determine which states are the friendliest to ex-prisoners. They include the number of reentry programs, background check stipulations, recidivism rates, and the population of current or former convicts. Each metric was standardized and weighted before being added together for a final score.

Arizona’s three-year recidivism rate, 39.8%, is middle of the pack. The state has the 17th highest percentage of current and ex-prisoners, 7.5%. Arizona also does not have background check stipulations.

However, Arizona is tied for the eighth most reentry programs with six.

The U.S. contains 5% of the world’s population, yet houses 25% of the world’s prisoners, according to the American Psychological Association. This means the country incarcerates around 2.3 million people — or one in every 100 adults.

“The U.S holding 25% of the world’s prisoners but only 5% of the world population implies that as a country, we don’t invest in our citizens that are imprisoned nor provide a prison system that reduces recidivism,” the PrisonEd Foundation told Daily Independent. “The treatment of prisoners throughout the history of the U.S has been focused on punishment and intimidation instead of education and rehabilitation.

“Culturally, our country views prisoners as individuals who should be outcast from society, rather than work with prisoners to reconcile their actions and make lifelong improvements.”

However, reentry programs are starting to be implemented in a variety of way across the country.

In Arizona, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office recently teamed up with Securus Technologies to bring electronic tablets to inmates at its Adult Detention Center. The goal is to prepare inmates with 21st century skills to help them when they are released. Inmates are now able to use tablets to help advance their education and gain new skills while they are incarcerated.

“With tablets, inmates can stay in touch with family and keep their minds pre-occupied with educational and religious programming,” Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb stated. “We expect that it will help with behavior.”

Securus offers the community tablets for free, and Mr. Lamb says they occupy the time of inmates in productive ways and allows inmates to have access to better opportunities.

Officials believe one way the tablets will help inmates is through their job search application. The tablets require no staff intervention and also have applications giving inmates access to the phone, education, mental health, and the law library.

“We hope this will help inmates better their lives while they are in our custody,” Mr. Lamb stated. “Our population is working with educators in our jail. They now have the opportunity to get a GED. We hope it will help with recidivism and makes them more employable. If you have a job, and you’re good at it, then you don’t have a reason to commit a crime and come back into my facility.”

The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office’s Adult Detention Center houses an average of 500 inmates each day, according to a release. The agency has one tablet for every two inmates, PCSO Administrative Specialist Danny Bavaro said. They are available during daylight hours, and inmates don’t have them when they are locked up.

PCSO says the Make Mine program helps improve facility efficiencies by providing personal access to make phone calls, search for jobs, and give greater access to books, educational materials and other content.

“Some of our inmates have grown up with a mom and dad on drugs or alcohol. They’ve had it pretty rough growing up,” Mr. Lamb stated. “The podcasts teach them about life decisions, not falling into the same old traps of committing crimes and doing drugs.”

PCSO believes having a healthy and strong support system is a good way for offenders to get back on the right path.

All activities and forms of conversation on the tablets are monitored, a standard practice at all detention facilities.

“They are allowed to contact pretty much whoever they want,” Mr. Bavaro said. “It is monitored and the inmates know that.”

For here in the Valley, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and Bill Montgomery recently signed a contract with Southwest Behavioral Health and Services to provide treatment for certain felony offenders designated as seriously mentally ill, as a part of the office’s Felony Pretrial Intervention Program.

The first of its kind for Maricopa County and Arizona, the new program will be known as the FPIP-SMI Diversion Program. It is scheduled to begin Aug. 12, according to a press release.

“By joining with Southwest Behavioral Health as a provider, we can better help those offenders whose criminal actions were likely influenced by mental illness,” Mr. Montgomery stated. “FPIP-SMI will work with participants to achieve a successful outcome, avoiding prosecution and potential incarceration. More importantly, it will result in people having greater access to mental health treatment and services.”

The FPIP-SMI Diversion Program is designed for adult offenders who meet certain eligibility criteria. They must be designated seriously mentally ill as defined under Arizona Revised Statutes 36-550 and will be assessed using a validated Ohio Risk Assessment System.

The ORAS assesses the offender’s risk to reoffend and identifies criminogenic needs. The provider may use additional assessment tools in conjunction with the ORAS to evaluate the offender’s specific clinical needs. If determined to be eligible, prosecution is suspended.

Officials at the PrisonEd Foundation agreed that these programs go a long way towards helping inmates reenter society.

“These are similar to reentry programs because these intervention programs are seeking to rehabilitate and provide a form of aid to individuals who have committed a crime before they reenter society,” the PrisonEd Foundation stated. “The Felony Pretrial Intervention program is looking to directly address the issue of helping those with mental health illnesses who have committed crimes. This program offers inmates who maintain their engagement in the program and complete the curriculum, a chance to be provided aid for their mental illness and support by dismissing eligible charges against them.”

In Spring 2018, the MCAO started the Diversion Program Bureau to focus on the development, performance and sustainability of prosecution-led diversion programs. The bureau is led by staff with extensive professional backgrounds in human services, specializing in serving the justice-involved population.

Diversion programs allow prosecutors to divert certain felony cases into education and treatment programs that address the offender’s thinking patterns and decisions, as well as issues associated with substance abuse that led to their criminal behavior. The programs hold individuals accountable and provide strategies and community support for positive change.

If the offender successfully completes the diversion program, charges will not be filed, or if they were already filed, they will be dismissed. If the offender is unsuccessful, they will return to traditional prosecution through the courts.

“Sometimes ensuring justice in a case requires us to think outside of the box and look beyond simply seeking a conviction,” said Patricia Cordova, MCAO Diversion Program Bureau Chief.

The newest program, Felony Pretrial Intervention Program, was created for participants charged with class 4, 5 and 6 non-drug possession felony offenses. The program began in July 2015, and from then through mid-April, more than 1,000 offenders have been referred to the program.

The MCAO says there is a 70% successful completion rate by participants and only 4.1% of participants have gone on to commit a new offense. The program has also collected more than $145,000 in restitution for victims.

Among the Foundation’s findings, Virginia has the lowest re-incarceration rates with 2,588 of the 11,576 felons released in 2013 being re-incarcerated within three years. Alabama has the most reentry programs at 19 and is ranked No. 4 overall. California, the state with the second-largest number of programs, has 13.

The percent of adults who are current or ex-felons ranges from 2.5% in West Virginia to 13.5% in Florida.

The PrisonEd Foundation said funding given to a state can be one metric to study closely in future reports, along with the number of volunteer-based organizations.

“Another metric to consider is state policies, specifically the effect of parole,” the Foundation stated. “This would address how often the state allows individuals to hold jobs while on parole and should consider restrictions such as, if they’re allowed to leave their home, and how that might affect their ability to hold down a job. These policies can greatly affect an individual’s reentry experience and can discourage those from continuing to improve.”

Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Oregon, and Texas were excluded from the ranking due to a difference in data reporting.

The PrisonEd Foundation said other states might think about introducing programs focusing on enhancing one’s communication skills.

“Often times, disputes occur from lack of communication or are resolved with violence,” the foundation stated. “Teaching inmates how to grow their interpersonal skills will also prepare them, upon release, for job interviews or higher education.”

When looking at background check restrictions, most of the Top 10 friendly states for recently released inmates have some law keeping companies from going a certain amount of time into the past of a prospective employee.

A background check restriction effectively prevents employers from discriminating against an individual on the sole basis that they have a criminal record.

“By having a seven-year limit on a background check, this gives individuals a chance to be judged on their most recent qualifications rather than their previous mistakes in years past,” the PrisonEd Foundation stated. “The background restriction can also encourage ex-inmates to stay on track towards their rehabilitation journey and allow them an opportunity for a fresh start where their record won’t follow them for the rest of their lives.”

In April, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office found the number of annual prison commitments fell from 8,004 in Fiscal Year 2010 to 5,550 in Fiscal Year 2017, a decrease of 30%. The state prison population is down a second year in a row and has seen negative growth six out of last 10 years, all during historic lows in crime.

“We have achieved this drop without negatively impacting public safety by distinguishing between offenders who would best benefit from drug treatment or other recidivism reducing programs, and offenders responsible for the greatest amount of crime and acts of violence against our fellow Arizonans,” the MCAO stated.

Reporter Chris Caraveo can be reached at 623-876-2531 or ccaraveo@newszap.com.

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