Philadelphia Recidivism Rate Proves Costly

Former inmates, unable to earn living wage, return to crime, according to study


September 13, 2011

Eric Mayes, Philadelphia Tribune


Ex-offenders from Philadelphia have a more difficult time turning their lives around after a stint in prison than do former inmates from other areas, noted a new report on recidivism in Philadelphia.


The reasons are twofold - inmates from Philadelphia have less education than their counterparts, and there is stiffer competition for a shrinking pool of low-skill jobs in Philadelphia.


"In Philadelphia jails, 55 percent of inmates are high school dropouts that do not have a GED or a high school diploma. Compare that to the national inmate population where 40 percent are high school dropouts," said Joshua Sevin, deputy director of Economy League of Greater Philadelphia. "And, we're seeing intense competition for a low and seemingly shrinking number of low-skilled jobs."


Only 4 percent of Philadelphia inmates had a college degree, compared to 22 percent nationally.


Even if they can find a job, ex-offenders with no high school diploma in Philadelphia can only expect to earn about $8,300 annually after their release from jail.


"That's barely enough to cover fair-market rent for an apartment," Sevin said. "Clearly it's very tough going for ex-offenders."


In general, ex-offenders earn 11 percent less per hour than people with no record, and wage growth is 30 percent less.


The difficulty is compounded by the fact that many ex-offenders face fines, restitution, court costs and fees, and child support payments that in some cases total up to 65 percent of their income. With an annual salary of $8,300, that equates to $5,395, leaving an ex-offender $2,905 a year on which to live.


"There is often a hole of debt and restitution that awaits them when they come out of jail," Sevin said. "When you talk about incentives for someone to seek and stick with employment, that amount of money going out the door really takes down the incentive."


That's bad news not only for those individuals, but also for the city as whole, found the report released Monday by the Economy League, which detailed the economic impact of the city's recidivism rate.


High recidivism rates cost the city in wage and sales taxes as well as adding to the growing costs of incarceration. The report estimated that if Philadelphia could cut the number of inmates returning to jail by 1,500 it would save $26.3 million a year.


The report recommended that the city align its policy to the realities faced by ex-offenders in five ways: increase spending on education and employment programs for ex-offenders; work more closely with industries likely to hire former inmates; push its $10,000 tax credit for hiring ex-offenders; extend wage garnishment periods for ex-offenders and make sure its programs are working.


"This is a public safety ... challenge," said Mayor Michael Nutter. "It's not just about giving someone a second chance. I would suggest it's about life saving."


There are an estimated 300,000 ex-offenders in Philadelphia.


Each year there are about 40,000 releases from city, state and federal prisons in Philadelphia. Sevin cautioned that figure did not mean 40,000 people were released each year, because prison statistics track releases, not individuals, and some individuals are released and go back to prison and are released again within the same calendar year.


Still, the number of ex-offenders hitting the streets annually was near that figure.


The report noted that 60 percent of them remained unemployed one year after their release and 40 percent would return to jail within three years of their release.


Most of them lack work readiness skills, the social network needed to land a job and face employers reluctant to hire ex-offenders.


"When folks are working they literally just don't have time and are less motivated to be out here robbing people, stealing and creating all kinds of havoc," said Nutter.


The city has been grappling with the problem for years.


In April, the city prohibited prospective employees from asking whether job applicants had ever been convicted of a felony until at least the second interview. Hopes were that removing those questions early more ex-offenders will be able to more easily make the transition from prison to life outside.


Contact staff writer Eric Mayes at (215) 893-5742 or [email protected].


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