Finds Halfway Houses Don’t Reduce Recidivism
By SAM DOLNICK
Photo: Mark Makela
John E. Wetzel, the Pennsylvania corrections secretary, said the state should not be paying operators of halfway houses “to let inmates watch Jerry Springer.”
The federal government and states across the country have spent billions of dollars in recent years on sprawling, privately run halfway houses, which are supposed to save money and rehabilitate inmates more effectively than prisons do.
But now, a groundbreaking study by officials in Pennsylvania is casting serious doubt on the halfway-house model, concluding that inmates who spent time in these facilities were more likely to return to crime than inmates who were released directly to the street.
The findings startled the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett, which responded last month by drastically overhauling state contracts with the companies that run the 38 private halfway houses in Pennsylvania. The system costs more than $110 million annually.
Pennsylvania’s corrections secretary, John E. Wetzel, who oversaw the study, called the system “an abject failure.”
“The focus has been on filling up beds,” Mr. Wetzel said in an interview. “It hasn’t been on producing good outcomes.”
The state now plans to link payments to the companies to their success at rehabilitating the thousands of inmates who go through halfway houses in Pennsylvania annually.
Correctional experts said the move by Mr. Corbett, a Republican, made Pennsylvania a prominent voice in the national debate over whether new correctional strategies, including halfway houses, lowered recidivism rates and cut ballooning prison budgets.
By contrast, New Jersey, which has also been a leader in the halfway-house movement, has moved far more slowly to revamp its system, even though senior New Jersey lawmakers acknowledge that it is as troubled as Pennsylvania’s.
The same company, Community Education Centers, is the biggest provider of halfway houses in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The New York Times published a series of articles last year that detailed escapes, violence, drug use and other problems at Community Education halfway houses in New Jersey.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican, has been a vocal supporter of Community Education. Until November, his close friend and political adviser William J. Palatucci was a senior executive at the company.
Mr. Christie’s chief spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said it was not proper to compare the systems in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“I have no interest in assisting The New York Times if it is cherry-picking facts and figures, drawing conclusions from a Pennsylvania study and applying them erroneously to this state,” Mr. Drewniak said.
But the Pennsylvania study was so conclusive that it dismayed even a criminologist who serves on Community Education’s board of directors.
The criminologist, Prof. Edward Latessa of the University of Cincinnati, said the study confirmed his own research on the Pennsylvania system, which has about 4,500 beds.
“We looked at quality indicators in our study,” he said. “They were all poor. There were almost no positive results. I was shocked.”
The federal government and many states have increasingly sought to cut spending on corrections by relying on privately run halfway houses, many of which are as large as prisons.
Inmates can be paroled or sent toward the end of their sentences to these facilities, where per-bed costs are generally two-thirds those of prisons. The companies promise to give the residents therapy, drug treatment, job training and other services to help ease their transition back to society.
The study by the Pennsylvania Corrections Department found that 67 percent of inmates sent to halfway houses were rearrested or sent back to prison within three years, compared with 60 percent of inmates who were released to the streets.
The study examined 38 privately run and 14 state-run halfway houses. The results for both categories were discouraging, said Mr. Wetzel, the state corrections chief.
He said researchers had not pinpointed the reasons, but he said he suspected that some halfway houses were not providing adequate services.
“I did unannounced tours at every one,” Mr. Wetzel said. “Sometimes I felt there wasn’t enough structured activity, more idleness than I was comfortable with. We’re not paying to let inmates watch Jerry Springer.”
Community Education has four halfway houses in Pennsylvania, with a total of 780 beds, and its recidivism rate was also 67 percent, like that of the overall halfway-house system, officials said. The company recently acquired another company in Pennsylvania with 581 beds.
The study included inmates who committed crimes while living in the halfway houses — on work-release programs, for example — or after they left.
In explaining why recidivism rates for halfway houses might be higher, Christopher Greeder, a spokesman for Community Education, said halfway-house inmates were under more scrutiny than prisoners released into the community. They were thus more likely to be detected when they break the law, he said.
“The Pennsylvania report is a landmark study that offers a complex look at the challenging issue of reducing recidivism,” Mr. Greeder said in a prepared statement. “There are many excellent recommendations and constructive discussions of the multiple factors surrounding current procedures and about future benchmarks and performance standards.”
Community Education runs six large facilities in New Jersey, with a total of 1,900 beds for state inmates and parolees, along with many hundreds more for county and federal inmates.
The state and counties in New Jersey spend more than $100 million on halfway houses, but New Jersey officials have never examined how these programs may affect recidivism.
In 2011, the Christie administration commissioned a report on the issue that it said would be completed in 2014 or 2015.
At the same time, the New Jersey Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, has moved slowly on several bills that would revamp the system.
The State Assembly is expected to approve a measure to establish a task force to study the safety, security and effectiveness of halfway houses. The task force would deliver a final report in 2015.
Lawmakers acknowledged that they had created the task force because they did not fully understand the system, which is more than two decades old.
“The task force bill is viewed as a starting point,” said the Assembly speaker, Sheila Y. Oliver, an Essex County Democrat. “Once we get that report, legislative fixes can then be considered.”
The task force would include lawmakers of both parties, as well as the corrections commissioner, the chairman of the State Parole Board, and independent experts selected by legislative leaders.
Nancy Wolff, director of the Center for Behavioral Health Services and Criminal Justice Research at Rutgers University, who testified last year at legislative hearings on halfway houses, said the task force was a delaying tactic.
She said if New Jersey were serious, it would follow the lead of Pennsylvania and another state that effected major changes, Ohio.
“There are too many lives at risk and too many people who could benefit from reform to wait two years to institute change,” Dr. Wolff said.