Omdahl: Prisoner releases will not be all profit

The mushrooming cost of keeping North Dakota wrongdoers in confinement has led to the creation of a 16-person study committee to consider methods of reducing the prison population.

The mushrooming cost of keeping North Dakota wrongdoers in confinement has led to the creation of a 16-person study committee to consider methods of reducing the prison population.

A number of states have claimed substantial savings by releasing prisoners into a probation and parole system that emphasizes rehabilitation. With the loss of $1 billion in oil-related revenue, the state is ready to look at anything to save money.

While focusing on savings, it would be unwise to disregard the cost of recidivism. According to the latest estimates, 39 percent of prisoners commit new crimes and return to prison.

With intensive preparation and supervision, the hope is that this level of recidivism would be reduced significantly. But the amount of reduction would be determined by the success of the program.

In our eagerness to reduce the cost of incarceration, we need to recall what happened with the reckless release of folks with mental health problems from the Jamestown Hospital.


In response to terms such as “warehousing” and “least restrictive environment,” we released patients who were not ready for mainstreaming.

As a result, we’ve had a number of disoriented mentally ill struggling to survive in flop houses, homeless shelters and under highway bridges. Some of them would have appreciated the more restrictive environment of three meals and a warm bed.

In the federal Second Chance prisoner release initiative, program managers identified a litany of barriers that confronted their participants, including “low levels of education, poor work histories, substance abuse, mental illness, weak personal support networks and generally poor coping skills.”

Depending on the nature of the crimes involved, all of these would have to be addressed to achieve any degree of success in an early release plan. Thinking through each of these barriers will force us to appreciate the challenges - and the cost involved.

Depending on the individuals, we may have to bring up their levels of education, develop new orientations to work, redirect substance abuse, cure mental illness, develop support networks and improve coping skills.

Dealing with any of these will require a ton of money from state and local governments and a conversion of anti-social personalities.

In some cases, rehabilitation will fail, and early releases will fall out of the program to continue a life of crime. This recidivism will be expensive, and its costs should be deducted from savings.

Reliable figures on the cost of crimes are difficult to find. One author’s manuscript at the National Institutes of Health estimated that all relevant costs for a sexual assault was $41,000, for aggravated assault $19,500, robbery $21,400, and a household burglary $6,200.


The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington points out that poor people will bear the brunt of crimes committed by recidivists. Folks with incomes below $15,000 are three times more likely to become victims than people with incomes of $75,000 or more.

Another relevant fact is that more crime goes unreported than is reported, meaning that recidivists would be wreaking more havoc than statistics will indicate.

The shift from incarceration to recidivism also shifts the economic consequences. Incarceration appears in county and state budgets; the cost of recidivism will be borne by victims. So while the state will end up saving money, victims will be paying new costs. That’s called privatization.

The whole idea of rehabilitation is meritorious. But the state will need to fund rehabilitation programs adequately, to be cautious in its releases and to accept responsibility for damages to victims.

Related Topics: LLOYD OMDAHL
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