According to the Colorado Department of Correction's 2007 Annual Report (Table 58), one year recidivism rates for released Colorado inmates are up for the fourth year in a row for inmates released in 2006, a level higher than that recorded in any year 2000-2005. In the most recent year for which statistics are available, 42% of prison inmates released returned to prison for a new crime or a technical parole violation within one year of release.
Historically, more than two-thirds of inmates who return to prison within five years do so within a year of being released. Interestingly, women are return to prison, as measured by three year recidivism rates, at rates very similar to those of men, despite the fact that women are typically incarcerated for less serious offense such as non-violent drug and property crimes.
Root Causes of Crime
Men are much more likely to go to prison for committing crimes than women. About 90% of inmates are men, a proportion that is a higher among those incarcerated for violent crimes. About 96% of inmates incarcerated for violent crimes are men, while about 84% of those incarcerated for non-violent crimes are men (44% of men and 24% of women in the state are incarcerated for violent crimes).
Inmates come to prison in Colorado with serious personal problems which go a long way towards explaining the high recidivism rates seen in the state. About a third of all prison inmates in the state are alcoholic or drug addicted high school dropouts without a GED, many of whom are also mentally ill.
Moderate to severe substance abuse is a problem for 82.0% of male and 82.4% of female inmates. Moderate to severe mental health problems exist for 27.8% of male and 34.2% of female inmates.
About 40% of Colorado inmates have no job skills. Another 20% have inadequate job skills.
High school dropouts make up 41.8% of male and 42.5% of female inmates (about 10% of adult in Colorado in the general population are high school dropouts).
Just 0.7% of male and 0.9% of female inmates have an associates degree or higher level of education (about 36% of adults in Colorado have bachelor's degrees or higher levels of education, and one would estimate that another 8-12% have earned associate degrees in the state based upon national figures).
Put another way, in Colorado, a high school dropout is 3.2 times as likely to become a prison inmate as someone who finishes high school but doesn't earn a college degree, while someone who earns a college degree is about 50 times less likely to become a prison inmate than someone who finishes high school but doesn't earn a college degree. A high school dropout is roughly 160 times as likely to become a prison inmate as someone who earns a college degree. A male high school dropout is more than 1500 times as likely to become a prison inmate as a female with a college degree.
It is also worth noting that the DOC statistics include GED recipients in the same category as high school graduates in these statistics. But, for many statistical purposes GED recipients do not look like traditional high school diploma recipients.
About one in ten GED recipients pass the exam from prison. Nationally, 56% of the incarcerated individuals treated as high school graduates completed their high school education with a GED rather than a traditional high school diploma, often while in prison. In contrast, about one in twenty college students has a GED). While GED recipients do comparably well on purely academic tasks compared to high school graduates, in terms of socio-economic success they mirror high school dropouts, at least, unless they manage to go on to complete college degrees, which GED recipients are less likely to do than traditional high school graduates. For example:
A report out of Ohio State University’s Center on Education and Training for Employment suggests that the economic benefits of the GED are short-lived and lose their impact over time. The report’s claims are reasoned out like this:
* High school dropouts lack the critical skills of their peers regardless of their ability to earn a GED.
* The ease by which a GED may be earned is leading more teens to opt out of the high school scene. The GED becomes an out.
Individuals that use the GED as a bridge to higher education maximize the test’s overall benefits.
If GED recipients were counted separately from ordinary high school graduates, the disparity in incarceration rates between high school dropouts, on the one hand, and high school and college graduates, on the other would be even greater. If GED rates in the U.S. are typical of these national percentages, in Colorado, a high school dropout without a GED is about 5.9 times as likely as a traditional high school graduate to be incarcerated, a high school dropout with a GED is about 5.1 times as likely as a traditional high school graduate to be incarcerated, and a person with an associate degree or more is about 33 times less likely than a traditional high school graduate with no college degree to be incarcerated.
The Growing Cost of Prison In Colorado
Colorado's prison population has increased 525% since 1985. Incarceration rates have been increasing without interruption since before 1990, mostly due to legislative changes that lengthened criminal sentences. About 5,000 more inmates, on top of the current 22,800 or so, are expected to be in Colorado prisons five years from now in 2012.
There are thirteen prisons in Colorado, out of twenty-five, which are filled beyond capacity, and the system as a whole is operating at 110% of capacity. The worst is Skyline Correctional Center, a minimum security prison for men, which is operating at 185% of capacity.
The once serious problem of felons sentenced to prison but backlogged in county jails until space was available has virtually been solved in the last couple of years, however. In February 2005, there was a backlog of 722 inmates. By June 2007 this had dropped to 82 inmates.
Also, like everything else, the cost of incarceration is rising. The average annual cost of incarcerating an inmate in Colorado in 2007 was $28,759. Housing an inmate in a maximum security prison (at $92 per day) costs about 50% more than housing an inmate in a minimum security prison ($62 dollars a day).
Lemons and Lemonade
The only bright spot in the typical and dismal annual array of statistics from the Colorado Department of Corrections this year is that predicting who is at risk of committing crime is fairly easy. Histories of prior convictions, education, age, gender, mental health problems and substance abuse problems can identify who is at high risk of committing serious crimes in the state, rank relative risk, and provide a basis for designing programs that address the root causes of crime by helping these often troubled people before they commit crimes.
High school dropouts, for example, are at a profoundly high risk of committing crimes, and we can often predict long before a child actually drops out of high school that he or she is likely to do so. When substance abuse, mental health and juvenile delinquency incidents encountered by police and school officials are added to the mix, it is often possible to make an even more refined assignment of who is on a path to trouble. While I would be the last one to advocate incarceration of people merely likely to commit serious crimes in the future, we as a state do need to aggressively market means to obtain vocational skills, deal with substance abuse, and treat mental health issues to these kids.
This particular DOC report doesn't reflect the issue, but we also need to do whatever is possible to keep these kids out of criminal gangs, because a remarkable share of all state prison inmates, about 40%, are allegedly associated with gangs.
Predictable risks are often preventable risks. Also, the high cost of incarceration born almost entirely from general tax revenues, provides a strong incentive to use public funds to address the root causes of crime.
Another observation that flows from the statistics above is that our society as a whole does an excellent job of getting a large swath of adults who are moderately functional to play by the rules.
If you graduate from high school, acquire real vocational skills, do not have a mental health problem and manage not to become an alcoholic or a drug addict, you are very unlikely to commit a serious crime, and are likely to escape incarceration if you do.
Perhaps even more notable is the fact that if you manage to earn at least an associate degree your odds of being incarcerated for a crime are still exceedingly low, despite the fact that statistically, we know that many people who have college degrees have mental health and/or substance abuse problems, and despite the fact that many people who have college degrees have few specific vocational skills.
One way to explain this disparity may be the hard economic fact that crime doesn't pay. Bank robbers net about $5,000 per job. Other thieves make less per crime. Many violent crimes don't pay at all. And, most real life drug dealers make far less impressive profits than the ones on Miami Vice. If you have a college degree or a skilled trade, crime is probably not a very profitable option by comparison. And, the vast majority of crime is either directly committed for the economic gain of the criminal, or is a violent crime committed in connection with a vocation as an economic criminal. Relatively little serious crime is committed impulsively by people with no other criminal history, and even less crime is committed with pre-meditation by people who are not alcoholic or drug addicted and have no economic motivation.
Hat Tip to Thinking Outside the Cage.