The high cost of recidivism
Repeat offenses cost Illinois taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year; removing obstacles to work would help combat this problem.
Recidivism occurs when someone commits an offense for which he or she returns to the criminal-justice system; it is a problem in corrections systems throughout the country. In Illinois, over 45 percent of offenders released from prison each year will have returned three years later – at a terrible social and financial cost.
Each instance of recidivism in Illinois costs, on average, approximately $118,746, according to a recent report by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council. The report breaks down this average cost into three parts: Taxpayers cover $40,987 of the cost by paying for arrests, trials, court proceedings, incarceration and supervision; $57,418 of the cost is borne by victims who have been deprived of property, incurred medical expenses, lost wages, and endured pain and suffering; and another $20,432 comes from indirect costs in foregone economic activity.
Assuming Illinois’ recidivism rate stays the same, taxpayers themselves will pay approximately $5.7 billion for recidivism costs over the next five years, to say nothing of the burden borne by crime victims.
Given that repeat offenses cost taxpayers and crime victims so much, public policy should be aimed at ending cycles of crime. Illinois policymakers have attempted to achieve this primarily through reincarceration; though this is an important tool, it won’t be enough to break the cycle of repeat offenses.
To make greater strides in keeping ex-offenders away from crime, and thereby get the most value for taxpayers’ dollars, Illinois needs additional ways to keep these people from recidivating.
Unfortunately, there’s no single solution to instantly fix the problem. But research has demonstrated that participation in educational and vocational programs while in prison is associated with lower recidivism rates once inmates are released. One study by the nonpartisan Rand Corporation showed that every dollar invested in prison education programs reduced spending on post-release incarceration by $4 to $5.
Many formerly incarcerated people will say that the single most important factor that prevented them from falling back into crime was being able to find work. But current policies make this much harder than it should be. In Illinois, there are 118 professional and business licenses that can be denied to those with a felony record.
These laws affect real people. People like Lisa Creason, who made mistakes earlier in life but turned things around by staying out of crime, earning a nursing degree while raising three children and working as a certified nursing assistant, or CNA. Although she obtained employment as a CNA, Illinois state law prevents Creason from working as a registered nurse, the more highly compensated profession for which she earned her degree. As a result of this destructive and counterproductive policy, Creason and her children remain on government assistance, living in a dangerous neighborhood, with economic success out of reach.
It doesn’t facilitate self-sufficiency or encourage rehabilitation for government to deny people the ability to support themselves, which society rightly expects them to do. Helping former offenders become contributing members of society means not shutting them out of work.
Ninety-seven percent of those under supervision in Illinois prisons will eventually be released to return to their neighborhoods, workplaces and communities. Barriers to work and education are impediments to rehabilitation, and by extension, to public safety. Enabling work and education isn’t just the right thing to do. It saves money, restores communities and improves public safety, which are goals everyone should support.