Research Shows Clear Rules Can Lower Recidivism for Non-Violent Drug Offenders

With prison systems across the country clogged with inmates, including the 50,000 residing in Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections, state governments are investing heavily in efforts to keep offenders from returning once they’ve served their time. Despite these efforts, nationally more than 67 percent of offenders end up back behind bars. One Drexel University researcher believes it could be due to a simple lack of communication and consistency.

Jordan Hyatt, PhD, JD, an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, has been working for a number of years to lower the recidivism rate in Pennsylvania, where maintaining the state’s sizeable prison system costs taxpayers $20,000 per inmate annually.

“High rates of recidivism are representative of the failure of the current prison systems to achieve its goals of deterrence and rehabilitation,” said Hyatt. “We needed to make the system more effective.”

Hyatt began working with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in 2014 to evaluate innovative criminal justice interventions happening throughout the country. During this time, he came across a program that was having success in reducing recidivism in Hawaii and became intrigued with what it could do if implemented in Pennsylvania.

Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program was created by First Circuit Judge Steve Alm in 2004. The program created more opportunities to avoid incarceration and implemented, what Alm called a “swift and certain” punishment system, which made clear to each parolee, exactly what would happen if they violated their conditions of probation.

Hyatt saw this as a program that could also work in Pennsylvania because it provided a clear set of rules, regulations and reactive consequences — as opposed to Pennsylvania’s procedures, that were not consistent or particularly well-understood by parolees.

Together with officials from the Department of Corrections, Hyatt modified Hawaii’s program to create a system that could lower re-offense rates in Pennsylvania. The State Intermediate Punishment program, based on its Hawaiian counterpart, was dubbed SIP-HOPE and went into effect in 2014, starting with offenders in transitional housing communities who are low-risk, non-violent offenders not fully released but also, not in prison.

The Department of Corrections implemented SIP as a 24-month structured sentence for non-violent drug offenders, incorporating inpatient/outpatient drug treatment. Under the plan, participants remain in the community correction centers, or half-way houses, for the latter portion of their sentence, rather than going to jail. The parolees are given clear rules, which are also posted in the correction centers. The rules include a ban on illicit drugs and alcohol, which is enforced by regular breathalyzer tests in the center and random drug testing.

“Before, when parolees would break rules, and test positive for drugs, nothing immediate would happen,” says Hyatt. “They could test positive over and over again – but eventually, in no specific time-frame, however, they are sent back to serve the rest of their term in jail.”

According to Hyatt, these unclear expectations and inconsistent penalties were problematic and made it more difficult for inmates to assimilate into society.

By contrast, when SIP participants violate the conditions of the program they receive an immediate response. First-time violators spend 24-hours in prison and repeat offenders receive increased prison time and can be expelled from the program. But once their sanctions are completed, inmates are permitted to resume the program as if no violation had occurred. And participants are regularly informed that addiction treatment is available.

Hyatt and his colleagues Geoffrey Barnes at Cambridge University and Samuel DeWitt at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, have been working with the Department of Corrections to monitor the progress of the program and they have found the initial results to be quite promising.

“The results of this study show an impressive 13 percent reduction in re-arrests among SIP-HOPE participants,” said Bret Bucklen, director of research and planning for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. “Further, SIP-HOPE participants spent fewer days in prison or jail, demonstrating the ability of this approach to not only reduce crime, but also to reduce the use of costly prison beds.”

With the positive results of the program, the Department of Corrections plans to expand it to more community centers across the state.

The Department and Hyatt are now focusing on ways to implement it across departments and to test whether the program could be adapted to include a broader range of prison profiles and inmate risk levels. He is also looking at how behavior modification can alleviate prison costs, overcrowding and ultimately, hold individuals accountable so that they may return to their communities sooner with better footing and a sense of accountability for their actions.

Jordan Hyatt, JD, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Justice Studies at Drexel. His research in corrections and reentry focuses on the evaluation of innovative criminal justice interventions, with an emphasis on randomized experiments.

For media inquiries contact Emily Storz, or 215.895.2705

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