News Article Details

Addiction, mental illness, joblessness pave path back to prison for Georgia re-offenders

Montgomery Herald - 4/13/2017

VALDOSTA, Ga. - Prison cells across America are full of men and women who have been there once, twice, three times before.

They are the recidivists - criminals who left prison then broke the law again.

Their cycle of crime comes at a high price not only for them as they lose their freedom over and over, but for the taxpayers who pay to keep them behind bars.

Recidivism has been described as an epidemic, but reporting shows it may be the symptom rather than disease.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics study that tracked 400,000 released prisoners across 30 states from 2005-2010 found that two-thirds were rearrested within three years of release. Within five years, three-quarters were rearrested.

While a good chunk of the recidivists repeated serious felonies, such as rape or robbery, many of them went back to jail for less serious infractions, such as minor public order offenses.

The crime could be public intoxication or driving with a suspended license, authorities said.

In southern Georgia - including the communities Valdosta, Dalton, Tifton, Thomasville, Moultrie and Milledgeville, Georgia, along with Live Oak, Jasper and Mayo, Florida, and the surrounding counties - many of the agencies that track local recidivism are recording startlingly high numbers of re-offenders.

Georgia's recidivism rate hovers at about 30 percent, meaning three out of every 10 released prisoners relapse into crime within three years, which is the time range most government agencies use to measure recidivism.

But according to the Georgia Center for Opportunity, the state's rate surges closer to 50 percent - though still below the national average - when including "the number of people who commit a technical violation while on probation and parole, as well as the number of offenders who recidivate after the standard three-year time period."

A technical violation is when someone doesn't meet the standards of parole or probation, such as failing to check in weekly. And in many places, such as Florida'sSuwannee, Hamilton and Lafayette counties, those minor missteps add large numbers to the group of reoffenders.

Florida's recidivism rate is 25 percent, and the state's Department of Corrections attributes that comparatively low number to Florida paroling very few inmates and having a low number of court-ordered supervisions for released prisoners.

"Historically, inmates who are supervised following release have recidivated at a higher rate than those without post-release supervision," according to information on the Florida DOC website. "Since fewer of Florida's released inmates participate in court-ordered supervision, Florida's recidivism rate is lower than that of other states.

The colossal problem of recidivism is forcing local, state and federal governments to find ways to not only house criminals but to keep them from coming back once they're set loose.

Authorities said fighting recidivism starts with treating the root problems: drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, lack of education, unstable home environments and a workforce that is notoriously unfriendly to ex-cons.

The Root Causes: Substance Abuse, Mental Illness

A Thomasville, Georgia, judge said alcohol is the overwhelming cause of recidivism, with drug abuse and mental illness coming in as close seconds.

"The Thomas County Jail is the state mental hospital right now," said Mark Mitchell, judge of Thomas County State Court and Thomasville Municipal Court. "In my view, we functionally have no public mental health system since Southwestern (State Hospital) closed."

Lowndes County, Georgia, Sheriff Ashley Paulk said closing the Thomas County mental hospital was a "terrible mistake" because it served several counties in the area.

Mitchell said he and Jay Fielding, state court solicitor, attempt to steer people into treatment programs to prevent crime.

The colossal problem of recidivism is forcing local, state and federal governments to find ways to not only house criminals but to keep them from coming back once they're set loose.

But programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and agencies such as Behavioral Health Services are overwhelmed by the sheer number of people needing treatment, Paulk said.

Gale Buckner recalls one gentleman in particular from her years serving on the GeorgiaBoard of Pardons and Paroles.

"He had done something to mess up, and we were holding a hearing to decide whether to send him back to prison," she said. "He broke my heart because he was dealing with a mental health issue, and he said the best mental health care he'd gotten was when he was in prison.

"In prison, he'd gotten on medicines that worked for him for the first time. When he got out, it took him about three months to get a doctor, and that doctor would not prescribe those medicines for him."

Buckner said the state's recidivism rates would drop if it had more mental health resources.

Tift County Sheriff Gene Scarbrough estimates up to 90 percent of his inmates are there because of drug activity, and he said their addictions keep them out of work and bouncing in and out of treatment facilities.

"Some of them think they want help but they leave the facilities where they're trying to dry out and get right back into it," Scarbrough said. "We don't have the funds within the Sheriff's Association or the sheriff's office here to do programs that help them."

Brad Shealy, Southern district attorney, agreed; substance abuse is probably the number one reason why people reoffend. Shealy also said many released prisoners suffer from a mental illness to a degree that makes getting them help strangely difficult.

"Unfortunately, many fall in a gap where their mental health is not bad enough to commit to inpatient treatment but is not good enough to deal with society. They sometimes deal with drugs, some commit crimes of violence or are involved in domestic violence," Shealy said.

For more than four years, Colquitt County's Accountability Court has worked to help offenders whose legal issues are related to drug use or mental illness stay out of jail.

The court pulls drug-using or mentally ill offenders out of the normal judicial system and addresses their offenses in a strict but supportive atmosphere. The belief behind the court is that the offender's drug use or mental illness is the cause of his criminal activity, so by addressing those root medical problems, the court can help the offender resume a law-abiding life.

Through September, six people had successfully completed the program, which requires a minimum of about 20 months. Each month a number of the participants - who are drug-tested each week and subject to random tests at any time - usually end up in jail for a few days when they violate the terms of the program.

"If we can just reduce some of our recidivism with (the Accountability Court), I think it will be worth it," Howell said. "If we save one, that's one more than we could have if we hadn't tried."

But even former prisoners who don't suffer from addiction or mental illness can encounter a mountain of other challenges when trying to live crime-free.

The Root Problems: Unemployment, Poor Education, 'A Broken System'

If a prisoner is released but can't find a job, he or she is more likely to return to crime, authorities said.

"Some of them, that's the only life they've known. They're not going to get a job. They're not going to keep a job. They think it's easier to steal," Paulk said.

For released prisoners looking for work, the odds are stacked against them, Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress said.

"I think our system's broken because you've heard the old cliché, 'You've paid your debt to society; now you can go back into the work force.' That isn't true because the first thing people do is they check to see if you're a convicted felon. If you're a convicted felon, you're labeled," Childress said.

"If you're going through a list of 50 applications, and you've got a line on it that says convicted felon, what are you going to do with that? Throw it out."

Childress said employers should "ban the box" and stop asking applicants if they're a convicted felon, which is something the City of Valdosta has already done, he added.

"If you remove that box, it at least will give you a possible opportunity to meet the person," Childress said. "Just because somebody's a convicted felon doesn't mean they're a thug. We've all made mistakes.

"I just don't think it's fair if you don't remove that box. That's why you have these high recidivism rates. And it's not just here; it's all over the country."

Childress said finding ex-criminals jobs greatly reduces their risk of re-offending. That's why his department is actively involved in an annual job fair that connects former prisoners and other hopeful applicants with local employers.

Authorities said numerous root problems drive people back to crime, including alcohol and drug addiction, mental illness, lack of education and the inability to find work.

On a state level, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has instituted the Georgia Prisoner Reentry Initiative to prepare offenders for release.

It begins in prison where the offender is advised to take courses that will provide him or her with skills or education to obtain a job after release. The program attempts to find them a place to live to keep them away from the bad influences that got them into trouble originally and works with local employers to find jobs for offenders.

Thomasville Police Chief Troy Rich said fighting recidivism is a comprehensive process of education, rehabilitation and job placement.

That's why some local clergy go to jails to educate inmates on being a productive citizen with the hopes they will take the words to heart when they leave prison.

"If it makes an impression on one, it's one less we have to worry about," Rich said.

The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Eve Guevara, Patti Dozier, Billy Hobbs, Alan Mauldin and Charles Oliver, along with the writer, team leader John Stephen.


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