While criminal justice reform advocates have long looked to transform incarceration to an experience that leaves released prisoners capable of living a productive, crime-free life, state prisons in the U.S.—which house roughly 90% of all inmates—typically have high rates of recidivism. A 2014 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found over two–thirds of state prisoners get re–arrested within three years of being released, while over three–quarters get re-arrested within five years. While educational and vocational programs exist in many U.S. prisons, and have shown some progress, participation and performance have been inconsistent.
By contrast, New Zealand’s commitment to reducing recidivism is already showing signs of progress and deserves careful study by lawmakers and reformers in the U.S. Faced with recidivism rates just over 50%, New Zealand officials made reducing recidivism a top priority. In addition to calling on all existing prisons to meet a target of a 25% reduction in recidivism by 2017, in 2012, the country approved an agreement with a private consortium led by the British firm Serco to design, build, and operate the state’s first privately–owned prison at Wiri that will be built and operated with an explicit focus on recidivism reduction.
Under this innovative private prison contract, the private consortium faces financial penalties for failing to meet recidivism reduction targets and for the occurrence of certain security incidents, while being rewarded for outperforming government-run prisons in reducing recidivism rates. Providing access to educational resources has been a major priority, with Wiri inmates receiving significant access to tablet and desktop computers as well as instructors to deliver educational services. Effectively reducing recidivism rates amongst the country’s indigenous Maori population, who make up about half of inmates in New Zealand prisons, will result in additional bonus payments to the consortium.
Regardless of whether the entity managing a prison is a public or private one, giving the entity the financial incentive to transition their inmates into being productive, law-abiding citizens is a worthy goal. While making a reasonable assessment of results will take time and measurements can be tricky, tying financial reward directly to reducing recidivism is conceptually as good a means as any to ensure inmates leave prison in a better position to contribute to society than when arriving in prison.
Recidivism–based pay in corrections does have some experience elsewhere, including in the U.S. A new Australian women’s prison operated by Sodexo receives bonus payments for each inmate that does not face re–arrest after two years. Earlier this year, Oklahoma entered into a pay for success agreement with a nonprofit to provide rehabilitative services for female inmates, with pay tied to ensuring inmates do not return. In 2013, Pennsylvania renegotiated all contracts governing its 38 community corrections centers (“halfway houses”), tying them performance to recidivism and leading to promising results so far.
If the Wiri prison’s operators succeed, it will show that even high–security prisons are capable of managing inmate populations effectively so that they avoid re-incarceration. If Serco and its private partners fail to succeed, then the country’s corrections agency (and ultimately, taxpayers) will be compensated to some degree for to the failure.
Stephen Selwood, Chief Executive of the New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development, stated of the country’s commitment to reducing recidivism and its partnership with the Serco–led consortium, “Introducing collaborative partnerships where both public and private operators are incentivised to continually improve performance but held to account when things go wrong is the right way to deliver better outcomes for prisoners, their families and society as a whole and represents global best practice in prison management.”
For other recent Reason articles that explore this concept, see here, here and here.