- - Wednesday, October 24, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When a person is sentenced to jail or prison, their incarceration should be viewed as an opportunity for reform. A long-awaited discussion is currently taking place in Congress on how to meaningfully reduce recidivism rates, and to address this challenge, we must look to the evidence and programs that are well documented through research in order to know what actually works.

The GEO Group (GEO) has not historically taken positions, either for or against, specific criminal justice policy; however, we voice our support for efforts intended to reduce recidivism. Specifically, we are encouraged by language in the FIRST STEP Act, which would provide benefits to federal prisoners who decide to participate in in-custody programs targeted at reducing the chances that an individual will reoffend upon release.

While GEO’s correctional facilities at the federal level only house 400 U.S. citizens of the more than 170,000 inmates in federal prisons, we believe the documented success we are already realizing across our state prison programs can inform federal initiatives.

Following a report from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) and the Justice Department’s Crime Justice Institute (CJI), GEO undertook a self-assessment to measure how well we were achieving the eight principles for effective intervention as outlined by the report. From that assessment, the GEO Continuum of Care (CoC) model was designed.

The Continuum of Care model was developed by various subject matter experts including psychologists, substance abuse specialists, social workers, educators and researchers, and is currently operating in 15 of our state facilities nationwide. The model provides enhanced in-custody offender rehabilitation programming, including cognitive behavioral treatment, combined with intensive transition case management and unparalleled post-release support services for up to twelve months for any individual who chooses to participate.

When the CoC program was initially piloted at our Graceville Correctional Facility in Florida in 2015, we realized a 25 percent reduction in returns to prison over the course of the first 12 months.

Being prepared when leaving prison is an important part of reentry, and we found that 97 percent of program participants said they felt prepared to reenter society after going through the program, with 100 percent of participants saying that meeting with their dedicated case managers — a hallmark of the program — helped prepare them for release.

In 2017, our Graceville facility alone had an enrollment of 276 inmates in academic programming, such as GED programs, 228 in vocational training, such as digital design and electrical wiring, 515 participants in behavioral programming, and 245 in substance abuse programs. Based on data through the first half of 2017, individuals who received the full CoC model, including post-release services, had a 35 percent reduction in returns to prison compared to pre-Continuum of Care programming.

Based on these early successes, we have taken significant steps to expand our CoC model nationally. Across our state correctional facilities around the country, we completed more than 11.7 million hours of enhanced rehabilitation programming in 2016 and 2017. Our academic programs awarded 4,464 GEDs or high school equivalency degrees. Our vocational courses awarded 15,488 vocational training certifications, and approximately 16,632 participants completed substance abuse treatment programs.

So what is necessary for success? Any successful program must start with customized assessments at the outset as each person is different and has different experiences and needs. This assessment leads to a unique, tailored plan for the individual, not a one-size fits all model. For example, we must ask, what are the risk factors that brought someone into this system to begin with, and how can we impact those factors?

In working to change lives, we must address the behaviors that dictate the decision-making process. For example, following release, an individual may find a job and housing, but unless that individual’s mindset has changed, sustainable success may be limited. Beginning in custody and continuing after returning to the community, cognitive behavioral treatment, including targeted skills building, is integral as an underlying principle of to reduce criminal behavior.

Research has shown some programs that others have tried have had no effect, or even increased recidivism, while other programs achieve significant reductions in recidivism. In my experience, programs are often only effective at addressing one time-period in the individual’s complete rehabilitative process. What is truly needed to be successful is a full-spectrum model that combines all of these elements beginning in-prison, transitioning back into the community, and maintaining and sustaining the change.

Simply implementing new programming is not enough, it must be sustainable. This begins with culture, with training and continues with tracking, following, and studying the outcomes each day. We must adapt and evolve with best practices, supported by research and fidelity. This approach to programming and support systems not only reduces recidivism, but helps the individuals, families, and our local communities to be safer for everyone.

• Ann Schlarb is the president of the GEO Care division of The GEO Group.

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