The jury is still out on how well California’s Public Safety Realignment is performing at improving public safety and reducing recidivism.
The 2011 realignment plan devolved responsibility for handling low-level criminal offenders from the state prison and parole system to county-level jail and probation systems, which opened the door for a significant degree of experimentation in smarter sentencing and more effective rehabilitation programs for incarcerated inmates.
A recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California examined the first year of results and found that counties that implemented realignment policies focused on re-entry services – such as mental health, substance abuse, cognitive behavioral therapy, housing, employment and education services – saw lower rates of felony re-arrests and re-convictions than counties that focused realignment spending toward jails and enhanced law enforcement.
With growing national concern over the number of Americans locked up in prisons and the high recidivism rates for those who are released, many state and local governments are focusing on expanding inmate education and reentry services as a key to helping offenders successfully reintegrate into society, and some are partnering with the private sector in various ways to do so.
In cases where governments contract with privately operated jails and prisons – as California has done for several years – the private sector has a long track record of providing more inmate rehabilitation programs than their government-run peers.
California counties can explore this as one potential option to lower jail costs while making any contracts conditional on expanding program offerings.
In fact, a pilot program underway in one of the United Kingdom’s privately operated prisons will withhold some payments to the prison operator unless they reduce the recidivism rate among released inmates.
In the U.S., Pennsylvania has been one of the early leaders in the creative use of public-private partnerships targeting recidivism.
It recently revamped over a dozen contracts to hold private halfway house operators accountable for reducing recidivism levels – lest they face financial penalties or the loss of the contracts altogether.
Another encouraging variation on the performance-based contracting concept has been “social impact bonds,” in which private entities finance and implement new recidivism reduction programs on behalf of governments using pay-for-success contracts.
In this model, private financiers raise capital to support nonprofits providing educational, life skills training and vocational programs to inmates nearing release from prison.
If the efforts reduce recidivism – thus lowering costs to taxpayers through avoided incarceration – then the governments repay investors. If recidivism rates do not fall sufficiently, the governments (read: taxpayers) do not pay.
For investors, this sharpens the focus on evidence-based practices that deliver results.
New York, Illinois and Massachusetts have all launched such programs over the past two years, with more jurisdictions set to follow.
And last month the early results from the first social impact bond in a U.K. prison found the program has yielded an impressive 8.4 percent reduction in the recidivism rate compared to a national baseline.
California counties should be taking notice of how the private sector’s role in criminal justice has been evolving and look for opportunities to partner where it makes sense.
Putting the private sector to work in reducing incarceration levels would not only benefit taxpayers but would also benefit society by improving offender rehabilitation and public safety.
Leonard Gilroy is director of government reform at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.