The approach is backed by prisoner advocates as well as liberal and conservative government officials, who say it pays off in cold, hard numbers. Michigan, for example, spends $35,000 a year to keep someone in prison — more than the cost of educating a University of Michigan student. Through vigorous job placement programs and prudent use of parole, state officials say they have cut the prison population by 7,500, or about 15 percent, over the last four years, yielding more than $200 million in annual savings. Michigan spends $56 million a year on various re-entry programs, including substance abuse treatment and job training.
“We had a $2 billion prison budget, and if you look at the costs saved by not having the system the size it was, we save a lot of money,” said Patricia Caruso, who was Michigan’s corrections commissioner from 2003 through 2010. “If we spend some of that $2 billion on something else — like re-entry programs — and that results in success, that’s a better approach.”
All told, the 50 states and the federal government spend $69 billion a year to house two million prisoners, prompting many budget cutters to see billions in potential savings by trimming the prison population. Each year, more than 600,000 inmates are released nationwide, but studies show that two-thirds are re-arrested within three years.
“An exorbitant amount of money is dedicated to incarcerating people,” said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “There are ways you can go about reducing the number of people incarcerated. The best way to help them successfully integrate into society and become independent, law-abiding citizens is to make sure they get a job.”
Pushed by faith-based organizations and helped by federal stimulus money, California, Michigan, New York and other states expanded jobs programs in recent years to give prisoners a second chance and to reduce recidivism. The nation’s overall jobless rate is 9.4 percent, but various studies have found unemployment rates of 50 percent or higher for former prisoners nine months or a year after their release.
Many states remain enthusiastic about the re-entry programs, but in a few states facing deficits, like Kansas, officials are cutting them back, partly because of the curtailment of federal stimulus dollars that helped finance them.
“There’s a lot of national momentum to expand strategies to reduce recidivism, and a lot of that is focusing on connecting people to jobs,” said Michael Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a research organization for state policy makers. “At the same time, some states that want to accomplish those goals are concerned about cutting money where they can and are putting some of these programs on the chopping block.”
Brian Vork, executive director of 70 Times 7 Life Recovery, a faith-based nonprofit in Holland, Mich., that helped place 60 former prisoners into jobs last year, said he had seen firsthand what a difference a job can make. His organization, whose name refers to a biblical passage in which Jesus speaks of how many times to forgive sinners, has set up a construction company — part apprenticeship program, part life-skills mentor — that allows him to size up the offenders who participate.
“You get some people who really want to change, and then you get some people who want all the bad things to stop happening to them regardless of their behavior,” Mr. Vork said. “What makes it all worthwhile is when you see the light bulb go off in some people.”
Take Robert Satterfield, 46, who spent five and a half years in prison on embezzlement and other charges. After being released, he spent several fruitless months searching for work and then turned to 70 Times 7 for guidance and training. Mr. Vork recommended him to Premier Finishing, a metalworking company with 16 employees.