Have I mentioned that in my rural Georgia town we have six state prisons? We call it economic development. I’m on the advisory board of one of them.
Today, Kansas is a leader in a spreading national effort to make parole more effective and useful — to reduce violations and reincarcerations as it protects the public and seeks to help more offenders go straight. Mr. Kemp’s parole officer is keeping close tabs on him, but instead of sending him for a punitive stretch behind bars, he required Mr. Kemp to attend a substance-abuse program, made sure he had a stable home with a relative and helped him get a job with a construction company.
A similar transformation of the parole system has begun in several states including Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York and Texas. It has been prompted in part by financial concerns: more than one-third of all prison admissions are for parole violations, helping to drive an unsustainable surge in prison-building.
Conventional parole — monitoring parolees to see if a violation occurs — does not work. The idea is to work with offenders to prevent them from violating their conditions of release.
In a sharp break with tradition, here and in some other states, parole agencies are hiring officers with backgrounds in social work rather than law enforcement. Parole officers are partnering with re-entry case workers who help prepare prisoners for society with group therapy and housing and job assistance. They start meeting prisoners well before their release, visit their families and may even drive them to a job interview. [...]
The changes, introduced over the last few years, are having measurable success, Mr. Werholtz said.
In Kansas in 2003, he said, an average of 203 parolees were returned to prison each month. By last year the number dropped to 103 a month. This could simply mean that those violating parole were left unpunished. But the number of convictions for new crimes by parolees has also declined; in the late 1990s, the number of people on parole with new convictions averaged 424 a year; in the last three years, it was down to 280 despite greater overall numbers under supervision.
Money talks — because of the changes the state has been able to put off costly prison construction plans. Those who work in the prison system
know are learning what works. The job is to get the public and the politicians to understand.