Trump, Koch and Offender Recidivism


Trump, Koch and Offender Recidivism

It’s an initiative that is getting almost no publicity but its importance could be profound.

The President’s support and $4 million from the conservative Charles Koch Foundation for a new offender reentry program could make a difference in the number of people returning to the criminal justice system.

Offender recidivism (arrests, convictions, and reincarcerations) after leaving prison are horrendously high with rearrest rates well exceeding 75 percent and reincarcerations at 55 percent. Some state and federal reports suggest arrest rates ranging from 80 to 90 percent.

Federal and state programs designed to reduce the rate of recidivism routinely report no impacts as to rates of arrests. Some interventions make things worse. Others reduce recidivism but the results are usually less than 10 percent.

Why Trump’s Initiative Is Important? 

The focus of the new initiative will be individualized treatment programs rather than the cookie cutter approach that exists now.

For the vast majority of current treatment efforts, participants get the same intervention regardless of unique needs. Most offenders do not have access to programs they need.

Many conservatives see recidivism as continued government failure and a waste of tens of millions of tax paid dollars.

The media coverage below suggests that the Koch Foundation is adding an aggressive evaluative component capable of pinpointing precise interventions and whether they work. If so, it may be a milestone in our understanding of offender treatment.

Figuring out why past programs failed to reduce recidivism or produced minor reductions would be an important contribution.

The key to making the “individualized treatment efforts” described below work is research. The President’s and Koch Brother’s initiative is not the first to focus on individualized needs.

Can Individualized Treatment Work?

The Patuxent Institution, is probably the most studied correctional facility in the country. It falls under the Maryland Department of Public Safety where I was the Director of Public Information for fourteen years. Patuxent is devoted to offering individualized rehabilitative services.

Its history is amazingly complex and controversial; it has been called the country’s most-sued correctional facility.

According to a Baltimore television station, across the country, 60% of inmates released back to the streets were rearrested with five years. At Patuxent, It’s three percent.

Past legislation to change the facility’s mission reflected, in part, a disillusionment with Patuxent for its inability to predict whether inmates were rehabilitated or to prove that the institution had lower recidivism rates than other Maryland institutions.

But overall, most evaluations suggested that Patuxent’s individualized (and expensive) model showed fewer arrests and returns to prison.

Note that previous federal rehabilitation efforts (Serious and Violent Offenders-Second Chance Act) were supposed to use risk and need instruments to pinpoint individualized needs with research robust enough to establish what works. Both showed little to no impacts on recidivism.

Not A Lot of Money

Quite frankly, the four million dollars proposed by the foundation is a drop in the bucket as to what’s needed to provide individual and precise treatment. Trump is also proposing $739 million for reentry programs in its 2019 budget for the Bureau of Prisons, along with $48 million for the Second Chance Act Grant program (link below).

He has also called for the establishment of the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry which involves leadership from federal agencies but, in D.C., such efforts are usually met with a disinterested yawn.

What Lowers Recidivism?

Per the best available data, little in the way of rehabilitation programs works or provides reductions of more than ten percent.

Researchers have called for specific and individualized treatment as our best hope to get better results. The quality of interventions has always been an issue.

Possibly the best program for lowering technical violations, keeping people in programs and reducing overall returns to prison are GPS or satellite tracking efforts.

Possibly the best-individualized effort to keep offenders out of the justice system is a focus on child abuse and childhood trauma. Nothing in the way of programs will work unless you stabilize the offender first.

Many people caught up in the system have a history of child abuse and neglect, mental illness or substance abuse. Most female offenders have been sexually abused by someone they know. It’s very difficult to overcome abuse; it’s often part of a person’s psychological DNA. You can provide remediation services but until you get to the core of the offender’s self-perception, little will change.


If the Koch Foundation includes a rigorous research effort of individualized programs that include an understanding of trauma, it will provide a significant service.  If backed by GPS/ satellite tracking of released offenders, the dual approach should have an impact.

New efforts are important because advocates blindly promote politics and philosophy rather than science. They insist that rehabilitation programs are working when the best evidence suggests that they are not.

Because most federal and state funding sources have little faith in the ability of programmatic efforts to reduce recidivism,  the vast majority of offenders in prison or on parole and probation get little access to any form of meaningful treatment.

We hope that the Koch Foundation understands this and will be forceful in the use of data. If so, it will be their primary contribution.

Media on The New Initiative:

Dallas News

Backed by the White House and boosted by $4 million from the Charles Koch Foundation,  a new way to introduce former inmates back into society will soon be tested in Dallas.

“Safe Streets and Second Chances,” a randomized prison re-entry pilot program, will measure how to reduce recidivism and lower costs by providing former offenders with individually tailored services to help keep them from falling back into a life of crime.

The study will roll out April 16 and last 15 months. About 1,100 former inmates exiting 40 prisons across four states, including Florida, Louisiana and Texas, will be enrolled. In Texas,  the program will be tested in Hood and Hunt counties in addition to Dallas.

Some of the nation’s top conservative policymakers — including President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner — as well as Kansas-based billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch, have backed the project, which builds on a decade of growing bipartisan support for improving America’s criminal justice system.

Carrie Pettus-Davis, a criminal justice researcher and an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, will lead the program. Her methodology for the study is based on elevating the “five key ingredients to successful re-entry” for every ex-offender — healthy thinking patterns, meaningful work trajectories, effective coping strategies, positive social engagement and positive interpersonal relationships.

Using this model, Pettus-Davis and her research teams will provide one group of participants with personalized services that will be tweaked based on individual need. The other group will be given services that are already available locally. The researchers will then measure whether and by how much specialized services result in a marked improvement in quality of life and reduce recidivism.

Re-entry specialists said people released from prison often either lack services or have access to the wrong ones. Maybe someone has a great employment history but severe substance abuse problems, or he is stable mentally but has no work experience, Pettus-Davis said.

President’s Executive Order–Establishment of the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry

To further improve public safety, we should aim not only to prevent crime in the first place, but also to provide those who have engaged in criminal activity with greater opportunities to lead productive lives.  The Federal Government can assist in breaking this cycle of crime through a comprehensive strategy that addresses a range of issues, including mental health, vocational training, job creation, after-school programming, substance abuse, and mentoring.  Incarceration is necessary to improve public safety, but its effectiveness can be enhanced through evidence-based rehabilitation programs.  These efforts will lower recidivism rates, ease incarcerated individuals’ reentry into the community, reduce future incarceration costs, and promote positive social and economic outcomes.

Sec. 2.  Policy.  It is the policy of the United States to prioritize efforts to prevent youths and adults from entering or reentering the criminal justice system.  While investigating crimes and prosecuting perpetrators must remain the top priority of law enforcement, crime reduction policy should also include efforts to prevent crime in the first place and to lower recidivism rates.  These efforts should address a range of social and economic factors, including poverty, lack of education and employment opportunities, family dissolution, drug use and addiction, mental illness, and behavioral health conditions.  The Federal Government must harness and wisely direct its considerable resources and broad expertise to identify and help implement improved crime prevention strategies, including evidence-based practices that reduce criminal activity among youths and adults.  Through effective coordination among executive departments and agencies (agencies), the Federal Government can have a constructive role in preventing crime and in ensuring that the correctional facilities in the United States prepare inmates to successfully reenter communities as productive, law-abiding members of society.

Committed Funds

In addition to supporting a rejuvenated Reentry Council, President Donald Trump has lent rhetorical support to prison reform, both in his State of the Union address and in meeting with reform advocates. The administration is also putting its money where its mouth is, proposing $739 million for reentry programs in its 2019 budget for the Bureau of Prisons, along with $48 million for the Second Chance Act Grant program. These programs fund education, job training, substance-abuse treatment, and other services.

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. You can contact me at [email protected].

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