Saturday, July 21, 2012

Fixing New Mexico's Budget and Prisons

America's Recession Proof Growth Industry (map source)

Big Players in the State of New Mexico Budget

Election year or not, the State budget should be front and center on the minds of New Mexicans anyway.  The State has a peculiar expertise in wasting money on projects that never happen, spending far too much for services and still failing at the fundamental expectation of citizens.  The "largest ducks in the puddle" when it comes to State spending are easy to identify.

Infrastructure development and maintenance
Public education
State contributions to public health, and,
All aspects of the State judicial system -- but especially prisons

Prisons are noted here because the State of New Mexico's approach to incarceration -- particularly the prevailing levels of recidivism -- is consuming too much money and producing too little in the way of results.  Broadly, the citizens of New Mexico are unsatisfied with the system, too.  MeanMesa suspects that New Mexicans expect the judicial and prison system to produce more rehabilitated criminals, a realistic expectation of justice, including sentencing, to serve as an effective deterrent to crime and a steady reduction in individual recidivism after release.

The estimates for prison population in the State for 2012 are around 6,800, including both men and women. [New Mexico Sentencing Commission - forecast]  The annual cost for incarcerating an inmate in State Prison is around $39,000. [State of New Mexico - Adult Prisons Division]  Although both the estimated population and the yearly inmate cost are reasonable compared to other states, neither one is the focus of this posting.

However, recidivism is.

First, A Quick Note on NM Prison Construction Costs

New Mexico prison construction has basically the same problems with cost over runs, changed plans and plenty of political maneuvering for the jobs a prison can bring to a community.  Improved program management, better facility needs analysis and less politics could recover substantial construction costs.  When these advantages are applied to long term costs of staffing and maintenance, significant further reductions would be possible.

We can look to California for one case study in prison cost management.

For years, "project generous" legislators in California automatically "tacked on" 15% of prison construction costs for architectural design fees.  Each time, the argument was that a state prison needed to be individually designed for a specific site or population.  Nothing against architects, but MeanMesa suspects that a really good prison design package could be used over and over again.

Even when buried in California's massive budget, 15% of prison construction is a lot of money which could clearly be used elsewhere.  New Mexico has the problem to a lesser degree, but it's still here.

But ALEC and the experts told us we were going in the right direction. (image source)

However, cost containment in designing and building prisons is a settled science.  The real money shows up in the year to year operation of the facilities, and that cost is almost entirely a product of prison populations.  This is where inmate recidivism rates "hit the State's check book."


After looking around a bit on the web, MeanMesa came to a page titled The Sentencing Project, Research and Advocacy for Reform, State Recidivism Studies.  Under the recap of New Mexico's record for 2008 the following abbreviated data is found.

The definition of recidivism for the study (source cited: New Mexico Independent) is reconviction within 3 years of release, and the calculated recidivism rate, interpreted using that definition, was 46.7%.  The 2008 statistics haven't changed much to 2012.

The point here is that if the recidivism rate were significantly reduced, the prison population could, theoretically, be cut almost in half.  The budgetary implications of that are immediately obvious.  Already, the State has initiated traditional educational programs in the prisons along with extensive behavior modification oriented programs both before and after release, but the 46.7% rate occurred concurrently to these efforts.

So, is there anything which could be added to the process which could materially affect the recidivism rates? 

MeanMesa would like to propose a suggestion.

The "Social Proficiency" Incentive

Based on the proposition that this stubborn and expensive recidivism rate is, somehow, eluding the expert efforts to moderate it, can something more simple be added which could make the penal system more likely to produce rehabilitated criminals and lower the State's costs?

Inmate education programs undoubtedly "bend the curve" toward recidivism by theoretically making released criminals more employable.  There are a number of educational programs in progress in the State prisons right now.  However, the GED's and high school diplomas being awarded to inmates have the same credibility problems as those awarded in the general population, understandably, possibly even worse.

First, New Mexico education systems function at a very low level in general when measured by national performance.  Those available to inmates generally function even a little more poorly than those outside the prisons.

Second, traditional inmate education does not effectively target the recidivism rate.  Even if post release employment prospects improve, the tendency toward reconviction continues for all sorts of other reasons.

This post is precisely about one of those "all sorts of other reasons."

It's no secret that a GED or diploma implies a certain academic proficiency.  It's also not surprising that "academic proficiency" has been burdened to also account for "social proficiency."  This match-up is deceptive.  In a sense, it asks academic proficiency to embrace responsibilities beyond academic ones.  Looking to academic proficiency to present the central advantage in lowering reconviction rates is a mistake.  It can certainly help, but it cannot "pull the wagon."

So, what can -- or could -- "pull the wagon?"

Social proficiency would encompass some basic knowledge about how society operates.  MeanMesa suspects that these are exactly the basic "misunderstandings" which commonly lie at the root of the recidivism.  Having said that, it would be quite pleasant indeed to instantly offer a comprehensive plan to lay out and implement such a program, however, it looks like the best we might do at this early stage is to propose some suggestions.

The Social Proficiency Profile

What we're "looking for" here is a statistical correlation.  Can some system introduce into the minds of criminals who would otherwise recommit an effective group of new concepts which would reduce the likelihood of so much subsequent crime?

As mentioned before, academic education helps, but such education does not directly influence the probability of recidivism.  In New Mexico prisons are releasing better educated criminals who are still sustaining the 46% recidivism rate which is costing so much State budget money.

Some of this may be accounted for as inmates who pass through the prison system without ever engaging in the academic opportunities, and recidivists are more likely to be inmates who have avoided such self-improvement choices.  The State prisons are a maelstrom of violent, adolescent gang "societies" in which attending an academic self-improvement program may actually be dangerous to an inmate.

Currently, being a gang member in prison is allowed to be little more than an inconvenient part of being a gang member out of prison.    Further, the "social proficiency" of a criminal who is "out of prison," that is, a criminal who has never been convicted, and the "social proficiency" of an inmate who has served a sentence and been released are disturbingly similar.

This is the crux of the high New Mexico recidivism problem.

New Mexico inmates are, generally, not psychopaths or sociopaths, but, clearly, too many of them have never experienced life which might reflect the successful socialization which is presumably the foundation of not recommitting.  Many of them have not only never been "in" such an experience, they never even seen such a state in their families or neighborhoods.  We don't need to quote Camus, but one conclusion is that they are alienated.

Further, that "alienation" is not some sort of wispy philosophical matter only found in old books.  The recidivist hosts a fundamental lack of social values.  Some of these are probably the things which are referred to when some barbershop genius ever so comfortably blames the parents and the upbringing for causing crime.  The lament is grudgingly common. 

If parents had introduced a better value system in their children, the little darlings would be less likely to commit crimes in their future years.  In fact, if these values had been properly introduced, the adults formed in such an environment would be more likely to "learn a lesson" from prison time and not recommit.

That barbershop guy may have over simplified things, but he also may be on the right track with his explanation.  However, his complaint doesn't map any sort of workable path forward.  So, if there is a "path forward" which could reduce recidivism by addressing these issues, what is it?  How could it work?

"Roughing In" the Parts of a Path Forward

Something like this gets far too complicated, far too quickly if we attempt to fully describe every "moving part" from a standing start.  Let's just look at a few of MeanMesa's suggested "moving parts" one at a time.

"Social Proficiency" For Early Release

The "release social proficiency test" would concentrate entirely on what a potential parolee actually knows about the fundamentals of successfully living within society.  The results might or might not reflect the focus of educational programs during incarceration.

At sentencing, a judge includes this provision for the inmate's being considered for early release -- adding this to an inmate's other opportunities such as parole, good behavior while incarcerated, residence in a halfway house, drug and alcohol monitoring and treatment and so on.  The judge's sentencing provision is that, in order to qualify for an early release, a minimum score on a "social proficiency" test will be required.

At this exact moment, we can see the consultants salivating at the possibility of yet another very complicated, very profitable addition to the not particularly effective and ridiculously expensive things they've already created.

"Who will create the questions and answers?"

"What sort of analysis will be required to tell whether or not an inmate is sufficiently "socially proficient" to be released with good results?"

And, of course,

"What will be the cost of all this apparatus, and who will get the checks from the State's court and prison system?"

 The "Social Proficiency" Test

Of course the "gun shy" State Legislators will do everything possible to not be responsible for the outcomes of the program -- again, most notably by instantly descending to their well worn habit of turning the whole thing over to consultants.

MeanMesa says "Stop right there."

The "system," when boiled down to the bones, amounts to a very direct relationship between inmates and the Round House.  The cost of recidivism is the problem and paying for that cost is done by those in the Round House.

So, why wouldn't the elected folks in Santa Fe be willing to write the questions?

Here's how it might work.

If each year every State Representative and Senator were charged with providing, say, one dozen questions and answers, a massive pool of test material would develop rather quickly.  The pool of questions is stored in a computer file, and when an inmate is ready to take the "social proficiency" test, a specific number of questions is randomly gathered from the collection to create each test individually.

Inmates begin taking the test, and more data is collected which correlates test results with instances of reconviction.  When the questions and the reconviction rates begin to correlate, that is, when inmate scores on the early release "social proficiency" scale begin to reflect the likelihood of inmate recidivism -- higher scores suggesting less recidivism, lower scores suggesting that recidivism is more likely -- we will be closing in on the basic, underlying causes of the problem.

This is the "missing piece" in all the things which we currently are doing which have such mediocre results.  The courts, judges and the other "post release" players seem to be both shocked and stoically accepting with the failure rates.  A 46% recidivism rate doesn't just come from no where.

Getting Inmates Ready for the Test

Of course inmates will require some help when they decide to work on their "social proficiency" in hopes of qualifying for an early release option. MeanMesa can offer little beyond the traditional sorts of educational efforts here.  There will inevitably be classes, educational experts and teachers and perhaps text books.

Here, again, the prison education consultants and contractors are already wringing their hands in eager anticipation.  However, this proposal places all that in a totally "performance based" contract schedule, something rather innovative for New Mexico legislative contracting.

If you are a prison education contractor preparing inmates for this test, your performance will be measured by the test scores of the inmates you "educate."  Due to the random process of creating the tests, "teaching to the test" will be impossible.  This will leave you with the challenge of actually increasing inmate "social proficiency" or losing your contract.

The inevitable questions:

1. "Who says that the 'social proficiency' tests actually measure social proficiency?"

2. "Who says that good scores on the test predict less recidivism?"

Happily, with this proposal, these questions are easy to answer.  The State legislators who are paying for everything caused by recidivism -- including both remedy and failure -- have decided that these are the questions which measure "social proficiency" in New Mexico for New Mexican inmates.

The second question's answer will take a little time to prove, but if the proposal can actually lower recidivism rates, there should be some pretty convincing data within a few years.  Start the testing a year or two before implementing the program.  Look at test results and the corresponding outcomes of early release and recidivism.  The correlated numbers would emerge at once.

By that time the nature of the "proficiency" questions will also be fairly well established, and the quantity of questions in the test pool will also be quite healthy.

Is It Worth the Trouble?

A popular summary of the goals of incarceration detail the following four focus points.
  • to isolate criminals to prevent them from committing more crimes
  • to punish criminals for committing crimes
  • to deter others from committing crimes
  • to rehabilitate criminals
These last two, deterrence and rehabilitation, are directly connected to the recidivism rate.

The New Mexico State government is constantly talking about bringing jobs into the state.  However, in 2012 the US economy isn't particularly in need of semi-literate, poorly prepared workers.  With the failed public education system steadfastly protecting its miserable results across the state -- high school graduation rates are around 50% and national state by state comparisons of general subjects place us behind almost everywhere else -- it's a mistake to naively presume "social proficiency" based on GED's or high school diplomas.

However, the "work ready" qualifications of those who have been released from New Mexico prisons adds "social proficiency" to literacy and educational achievement.  For the same reasons that employers are reluctant to hire "educationally challenged" New Mexicans, they are even more reluctant to hire "socially challenged" New Mexicans -- especially those recently released from prison.

If those in the Round House suddenly discovered a big pot full of the cash the State can save by reducing recidivsim, there would be no problem finding a far more constructive use for it.

1 comment:

  1. During my "internship" at the women's prison, CCA owned, the "unofficial" recidivism rate - according to some of the staff there - was upwards in the 80% range. During my tenure at this lovely facility, that number doesn't surprise me. Most of the women that left whom I got to know while in there, returned.

    One thing is definite - most of the women have no idea what an honest living is like or about - they've never been exposed to one. They have no idea what it is like to come home to a house where there isn't someone drunk, high, or will beat them. So they have nothing to look forward to as they cannot comprehend it without having experienced it. Prison to many of the women was a relief from their lives of abuse, crime and raw survival.