State unable to gauge effectiveness of prison rehab

Michael Montgomery
California Watch Blog
Mar 15, 2010

Last January, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation unveiled an overhaul of parole and rehabilitation programs to satisfy a court order to drastically reduce the inmate population.

Prison officials said the changes would prevent thousands of convicts from returning to prison, in part by “streamlining” rehabilitation programs “that are proven to reduce recidivism."

“We know what works,” CDCR Secretary Matt Cate told reporters following the announcement of the reforms.

The plan has stoked controversy for granting early release to a small number of “low risk” inmates and freeing them from traditional parole supervision. While more inmates are likely to be released in the short-term, there’s now growing concern about whether they’ll have the tools to stay out of prison.

A report released today (PDF) by the California Rehabilitation Oversight Board casts doubt on whether the department can reduce inmate recidivism “after laying off approximately 800 teachers, severely restricting the time spent in class, eliminating many vocational programs and cutting in-prison substance abuse programming to 90 days.”

The report also sheds light on another perennial problem in the state prison system: The CDCR has no department-wide system to assess the effectiveness of educational and other rehabilitation programs and thus no data on whether specific programs in California can actually cut recidivism.

A September 2009 report by the state auditor made a similar point: “…while Corrections' budget for its academic and vocational programs totaled more than $208 million in fiscal year 2008-09, it confirmed that its system for accessing, processing, and tracking inmate educational data is extremely inadequate, and therefore it is unable to determine the success of its programs in reducing the chance that inmates will return to prison once they are released.”

The CDCR’s Cate is no stranger to this issue. While at the helm of the inspector general’s office in 2007, Cate excoriated the department of corrections over its substance abuse programs.

Cate called spending on in-prison treatment since 1989 "a complete waste of money," and said prison officials kept expanding programs even though more than 20 reports said that the programs were failing.

A CDCR spokesperson confirmed that the department has no recent data to show whether educational programs have cut recidivism rates. But department officials are defending the new substance abuse programs, pointing to a report (PDF) from last September that showed a decline in recidivism among inmates who completed in-prison and community-based treatment programs.

However, it’s unclear to what extent the programs conducted behind bars were responsible for the drop in recidivism.

Here’s why: The same survey also found that inmates who completed only in-prison treatment programs had a higher recidivism rate than the general convict population.

Prison expert Joan Petersilia, who helped draft the original reforms three years ago, likened the current plan to “trying to buy a Cadillac on a Volkswagen budget.”

“In the current context the plan as it’s written can’t be fully implemented but as a policy matter it still makes sense,” she said.