Column: State’s prison recidivism rate is improving

Heidi Washington

Things are changing at the Michigan Department of Corrections. We’re moving in a new direction. Our parolee employment rate is up, and our prison population is down. The number of businesses hiring returning citizens is up and our recidivism rate is down to levels never seen here before.

Last week the department announced that rate — which is the percentage of parolees who return to prison within three years of release — is down to 28.1 percent. That’s the lowest it has been in state history and places Michigan among the top 10 states in the country.

Twenty years ago, the recidivism rate in Michigan was 45.7 percent. Clearly, we are moving in the right direction. Michigan is now recognized as a national leader in corrections. Other states send delegations here to learn from us and take some of our best practices and evidence-based approaches back to their departments.

In 2015, when Gov. Rick Snyder appointed me director of the MDOC, we implemented what we call the Offender Success model and it now permeates everything we do. The vision behind this model is that every offender released from prison will have the tools they need upon release to succeed in the community, so they can become productive and self-sufficient citizens.

While incarceration is often used as a short-term approach to improving public safety, true long-term public safety comes from changing the thought processes and lives of offenders so they are better than when they first came to us. This means providing them with an education, job skills and other important needs. With those tools, they will be less likely to reoffend and more likely to be productive, self-sufficient members of the community.

Fewer parolees reoffending means less crime, and that means fewer victims and safer communities.

Offender Success is a holistic approach that includes strategies to recognize those who may be headed down the wrong path and find assistance for them before they commit a crime that sends them to prison. It involves smarter and more adaptive supervision of parolees once they leave prison. And it has led to big changes inside prison and the programs we provide.

This is why we created the Vocational Village in 2016, which is a first-of-its-kind in the nation, skilled trades training program, where prisoners are selected and then live, learn and work together. This is done at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia and the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson. The program provides training in automotive technology, welding, CNC machining, robotics, commercial truck driving, forklift operation, carpentry, plumbing, electrical trades and concrete and masonry work.

The goal of the program is to return to the community individuals with state and national certifications for in-demand trades. We have been overwhelmed with the response from the business community. We encourage more businesses to come and tour these facilities and learn more about this program, because the more that do, the more successful and safer we all become. That’s because offenders with jobs are less likely to reoffend.

All of these efforts over the past three years are showing real results.

Just more than a decade ago, Michigan hit its peak prison population of 51,554. Last fall, our population dropped below 40,000 for the first time since 1993. Offender Success has led to fewer prisoners, more successful parolees, less crime and fewer victims. That is a record we are proud of at the Michigan Department of Corrections and one we aim to continue to improve on in the years ahead.

Heidi Washington is director of the Michigan Department of Corrections.