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Report shows lower recidivism rates in community corrections programs; legislation pending

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Criminal offenders who served their sentences in programs in which they stayed in their own communities under supervision were on average significantly less likely to commit new felonies than other offenders under the Alabama Department of Corrections oversight, a recent study found.

But some community correction programs had recidivism rates much higher than others and vary in the fees offenders must pay. Meanwhile, the programs for non-violent felony offenders aren’t available in some areas of the state.

“The better the program and the better managed it is at the local level, the lower the recidivism rate,” said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. He’s chairman of the Alabama Commission on Evaluation of Services, which was created in 2019 through legislation he sponsored in order to assess the effectiveness of various state programs.

The commission’s report describes community corrections as a middle ground for non-violent offenders in which an individual is not incarcerated, but is under more stringent surveillance than probation. They are supervised through office visits, home visits, drug testing and electronic monitoring. As of Sept. 30, 2020, there were 36 programs operating in 51 of Alabama’s 67 counties. Lawrence County ended its program last year.

The recidivism rate for community corrections program completers in 2014 to 2016 was 27.6%.  The recidivism rate for offenders released from ADOC prisons during the same period was 38%.

The report also examined 2016 offenders in all community correction programs. It found that three years later, an average 25.4% had reoffended. But those numbers varied significantly among the programs run by different organizations.

“This service assessment demonstrated a relatively broad range of success among Alabama’s CCPs,” commission director Marcus Morgan said. “For instance, utilization varied significantly among the programs but didn’t correlate with the overall recidivism rates.  Further evaluation is necessary to determine what specific interventions and variables combine to produce the most successful programs”.

The 17th Judicial Circuit — Greene, Marengo and Sumter counties — had a recidivism rate of 5%. Tallapoosa County’s program had a recidivism rate of 46.7%.

Per the report, Franklin County Community Corrections is used for 85.3% of felony offenders. But Madison County Community Corrections serves about 2% of offenders and the five-county 4th Judicial Circuit Community Corrections collectively serves 1.2% of all its felony offenders.

“We need uniformity to make sure programs are being run at an optimal level to keep non-violent offenders from going to prison and becoming hardened to crime and repeating criminal activity,” Orr said.

State law allows CCPs to organize under the county, as a local authority, or not-for-profit corporation. Of the 36 CCPs, 14 receive funding from their respective counties and only four of those are organized as not-for-profit corporations.

Meanwhile, legislation moving through the State House would require community corrections programs state-wide.

“This is a big deal to me because I know it works,” said Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, said. Hill’s House Bill 73 would require each judicial circuit to establish a community punishment and corrections program in at least one county in the circuit. The bill is expected to get a House vote on Tuesday.

Most offenders in CCPs were convicted of drug or property crimes.

“I know we have people out there that have addiction issues and but for those issues, they would be contributing members of society…” Hill said. “I want to give them the opportunity to help themselves.”

The commission’s recent report found:

  • While making up 39.8% of the community corrections population, white males had the highest recidivism rate. They were almost twice as likely to recidivate than their white female counterparts.
  • Offenders age 35 and older make up more than half of all participants in a CCP. They also have the lowest recidivism rate of all age groups at 19.8%.

Hill, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is a former circuit judge in St. Clair County who helped create the CCP there. He said programs give judges an option for sentencing and offenders who violate their community programs can end up in prison. The CCPs are within the oversight of ADOC.

“But they’re out in the world, so they can work, they can pay their child support, all the things we really like people to do,” Hill said.

He said that one of the things that makes programs successful is multiple “touches” with offenders, including regular, random drug screenings.

“A lot of people we arrest have drug issues,” Hill said. “If we can keep them off (drugs) they’re better off and we’re better off.”

The CCPs also cost the state less, about $10.47 per day, per inmate compared to the $48.47 in traditional prisons.

“Diversions to CCPs have resulted in avoided costs of over $290 million for the State of Alabama based on the average daily rate for incarceration for the last five fiscal years (fiscal 2015 through fiscal 2019) compared to state reimbursements to CCPs,” the report said.

In the 2021 General Fund budget, lawmakers earmarked $14.1 million for community corrections. The ADOC received a total of more than $544 million.

“I think the report proves what we already suspected with these counties that have no program,” Orr said. “Their answer is to just send them all to prison, which costs the state significantly. That’s why I’m supportive of Hill’s legislation to require community corrections in all the circuits around the state.”

State law doesn’t require law governments to fund the programs, but Hill said some provide office space and other resources.

While HB73 doesn’t do anything to standardized CCPs across the state, Orr said he may talk to Hill about an amendment to HB73 requiring some uniformity amongst programs.

“We’re going to have minimum standards to require some of these circuits to step up their game or get in the game,” Orr said. “We’re also going to have to support them in the budgets and save the money on the backend (in ADOC and court appropriations needed to support repeat offenders).”

Part of the reason CCPs cost the government less is because offenders pay to participate. A 2019 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center called community corrections programs “user-funded justice” and described little state oversight and “a patchwork of largely autonomous nonprofit organizations and county agencies that in many cases stay afloat only by charging fees from people who are often struggling to feed their children and pay their bills.”

The more recent report from the commission said that because CCPs are largely autonomous organizations, they charge participants different fees for services like drug testing and various forms of supervision and monitoring that can vary significantly from program to program.

Fee categories and costs range from $25 to $100 a month for general supervision and $20 a month or $15 to $35 per test for drug testing fees. There are also electronic monitoring fees, assessment fees, rescheduling fees, late fees, and in a handful of cases, salary garnishment is used. At least four CCPs charge only a flat monthly supervision fee, but even those range from as little as $35/month to as much $150/month, the report said.

“The average offender could pay as little as $525 in fees to Jefferson County Community Corrections over their whole time in the program or that same offender, if sentenced in Russell County, could pay as much as five times that amount ($2,479),” the report said. “However, that same offender would not be as likely to recidivate if they were sentenced to Russell County Community Corrections.”

“I wish we could run them all for free, but we can’t,” Hill said. “We have to pay our employees, we have to do things that cost money.”

He also said that he thinks if people are paying fees, they’re more committed to their rehabilitation and staying out of prison.

“I think there is some benefit in people paying for the help they get,” he said.

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