MECHANICSBURG - A dubious distinction for the Harrisburg-Carlisle metropolitan area: Number one in repeat crime.
The label was unintentionally revealed Thursday when the Corbett administration released the findings of a new report analyzing the rate at which convicted criminals commit new crimes once freed from prison.
Between 2006 and 2008, the Recidivism Report says Harrisburg-Carlisle’s overall recidivism rate, or repeat crime rate, was 65.3 percent and higher than the metropolitan areas of Philadelphia (63.1), Altoona (61.6) and Pittsburgh (59.2).
“Harrisburg, per capita, also has the highest crime rate in the state, but I don’t know,” said Bret Bucklen, the director of planning, research and statistics in the Department of Corrections. “At least the recidivism rate is consistent with its per capita crime rate.”
Dauphin County’s rate of repeat offending was also the highest in the state during the same time period at 67.3 percent; far ahead, statistically, of Philadelphia (65.5) and Allegheny (61.9) counties. York County is 9th highest at 60.1 percent. Cumberland County’s overall recidivism rate is 55 percent.
Overall, Bucklen says millions of dollars could be saved and overcrowding could dramatically drop if Pennsylvania could drop its overall rate of recidivism.
The new report shows that a 10 percent decrease in backsliding by ex-cons could annually save taxpayers $45 million and reduce the demand on cell beds by almost a half-million days.
“Now, that’s hard to do. Again, the recidivism rates have been mostly flat, so a 10 percentage point decrease would be a major decrease in recidivism,” Bucklen said.
Bucklen and Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, however, are championing this study as the “new normal” for re-incarceration and re-arrest rates in the state. Officials say it will help Gov. Corbett develop policies for how inmates are handled, and it will help in renegotiating the contracts for the state’s 40 halfway houses.
Statewide, 60 percent of ex-state-prison inmates are re-arrested or re-jailed within three years of their release, the study says. When counting both sets of numbers, Bucklen calls that “overall recidivism.”
Knowing 6 of every 10 former inmates will end up behind bars or in trouble with police is not good news, he admitted. The bureau director said people should demand better outcomes.
“If we got on an airplane and we had a 40 percent chance of landing, I don’t think we’d get on that plane,” Bucklen said.
Men (63.2 percent) are more likely than women (46.9) to be arrested a second time or jailed a second time following their release from a state lockup.
African-American ex-prisoners (66.8 percent) are also more likely than whites (57.8) and Hispanics (57.4) to return to trouble.
Ex-cons younger than 21 years old are more than twice as likely as those older than 50 to fall into the overall recidivism category.
By the type of crime, people who steal property or commit burglary are more likely than other lawbreakers to offend again.
If Pennsylvania could decrease recidivism by 5 percent, Bucklen says the state could still save $15 million and 235,000 cell beds each year.
Why would the Corbett administration want it to be known that Pennsylvania has a 60 percent rate of repeat offending?
“We’re not afraid to put bad results out there because we want to be data driven; we want to quantify our results; and if it’s bad we improve, if it’s good, great,” Bucklen said.
Pennsylvania contracts with 40 community corrections centers but only a quarter of them have overall recidivism rates lower than average after just one year out of prison.
Bucklen said Corrections will use the findings from this study to help it renegotiate all of the contracts for the halfway houses. The hope, he said, is to find a better mix of inmates so their chances of offending again drops.
While Bucklen said the administration believes the change should help reduce recidivism, he said there’s no panacea that will dramatically change prison life.
“There’s not going to be one thing that we do that’s going to get to that 10 percentage point reduction. It’s kind of a lot of small, little sanities that will get us there,” he said.