Beyond Recidivism Reduction
Date:  04-26-2017

Reverend Howard Dean Trulear reflects on why simply not going back to prison is not a measure of success for reintegrating individuals
Beyond Recidivism Reduction

By Howard Dean Trulear

Faith traditions hold lofty, yet attainable goals for humanity. The Judeo-Christian tradition affirms humanity’s creation in the image of God. Islam offers the concept of Taqwa as a principle of being connected to Allah and the will of the Creator. We find such framing of human potential in the founding documents of the United States, in language that affirms humanity is “endowed by the Creator with certain rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Bookshelves and telecommunications fill with literature and programming on emotionally healthy living and human potential. Though difficult to quantify, such ideas find common ground in our aspirations to be whole, healthy and relational people.

Perhaps it is precisely this element of the “quantified”- the politics of measurable outcomes gained traction in the 1990’s- that drives our evaluation of prisoner reentry today. We struggle to measure spiritual and emotional health, wrestle with notions of healthy relationships and disagree on definitions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So when defining successful reentry of formerly incarcerated individuals, the measurable outcome of recidivism becomes a convenient statistic for evaluation. The reduction of recidivism rates becomes the standard goal for determining success. The idea is noble and understandable. But for those of us, individuals, families, agencies, and faith communities engaged in the work of prisoner reentry and transition, recidivism numbers can never be our ultimate goal.

Aside from the controversies which arise from such measures- new crimes vs. violations, collecting statistics across federal, state and local lines, and looking at 3 months or 3 years out- recidivism rates do not point to quality of life issues that characterize the best of our traditions. Just “staying out of jail,” or “not going back to prison” represent a low hanging fruit for returning citizens, and fruit which by definition defines the future in terms of negation rather than affirmation. In our work with and support of returning citizens goals must be positively defined, and not negatively stated. Our funders may be impressed by the measurable outcome of recidivism reduction, but persons committed to core values of human potential, framed religiously or otherwise, can never be content with such a measure. The reduction of recidivism rates may boost the visibility and viability of politicians and government agencies bent of criminal justice reform, but it can only serve as a minimalist measure for our communities.

In a sense, to focus solely on recidivism reduction allows the individual who returns from incarceration and finds themselves homeless and hopeless, at odds with family and friends, or struggling with employment and addiction to be labeled a success as long as they are not violated or rearrested. Obviously, the person struggling with any or all of the above has a higher risk for recidivism, but there are those who neither go back to jail or prison, nor ever experience true reintegration (or for that matter, integration) into the community or the society at large. Short of indices by which to measure the “success” of such persons, the reentry community must maintain a “qualitative eye” for such individuals to supplement the quantitative measure. This is especially true for faith communities whose goals for human development far exceed “staying out of jails.”

True. The days of raising money for social programs with a core of good qualitative stories of success reside in the rearview mirror of the funding and political landscape. Yet, we cannot allow the measurable outcome of recidivism reduction to fully frame and define our work. We can affirm it for political and financial reasons, but live in the broader, more hopeful atmosphere of human potential and development. Indeed, if we frame our work within this space, the numbers ought to follow.

Rev. Harold Dean Trulear, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, DC. He facilitates the national faith-based movement, Healing Communities USA, and is a 2017 Leading with Conviction Fellow at JustLeadership USA.

For more information about Healing Communities USA please click here.