California prison rehabilitation programs should actually work
December 13, 2017


From the OC Register - California has work to do to ensure that prison rehabilitation programs serve their purpose, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office recent reported.

With about 130,000 people in state custody, tens of thousands of people are released every year from state prisons back into our communities. It should be in the interests of everyone that those released from state prisons make better decisions moving forward and never end up back in prison.

Rehabilitation programs serve a critical role in reducing recidivism. With effective rehabilitation programs, incarcerated individuals can be put on the right track, which in the long run not only saves more people from being victimized, but also saves taxpayers through lower incarceration costs. Unfortunately, while California now spends over $75,000 a year to incarcerate people in prisons, the LAO report highlights numerous shortcomings that need to be addressed swiftly by the Legislature and prison officials.

Among the most basic problems, the LAO couldn’t determine whether all of the programs are actually evidence-based or if the programs are being properly implemented.

The LAO particularly highlighted the Arts-in-Corrections and the Innovative Programming Grant programs, which are set to receive $16 million in funding this year as programs known to be evidence-based to reduce recidivism. But, they also point out that it is unclear whether CDCR implements its rehabilitation programs, funded at about $315 million, with fidelity, making it difficult to determine whether its programs are maximizing their potential.

Similarly, the LAO reports that CDCR generally doesn’t evaluate the cost-effectiveness of its rehabilitation programs. “As such, it is impossible for the Legislature to assess which programs are the most successful at reducing recidivism and to target funding towards the most cost-effective programs that provide the greatest benefit to the state,” the LAO concludes.

Disturbingly, the LAO points out that until recently CDCR “classified an inmate’s need for a particular rehabilitation program as having been met if the inmate attended at least one day of class.” This wholly inadequate and self-serving definition significantly overstated the effectiveness of CDCR.

The CDCR’s new definition of an inmate engaged in “meaningful participation” in a rehabilitation program is if he or she were “enrolled in a program for at least 30 calendar days,” which doesn’t mean the inmate actually participated and doesn’t measure whether an inmate’s needs were actually met.

Meanwhile, the LAO notes that CDCR isn’t effectively targeting the highest-risk, highest-need inmates for programs. About 48 percent of people released from prison in 2015-16 hadn’t been enrolled in and/or attended any of the rehabilitation programs they had an assessed need for. While some of this is due to a lack of resources, there must be a way for CDCR to better plug people into the programs they should be in.

Given the number of people that cycle in and out of prisons every year, and especially with the renewed emphasis on rehabilitation with the passage of Proposition 57, it is essential that California ensure its prison rehabilitation programs are as effective as possible.