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updated 4/13/2011 7:41:46 AM ET 2011-04-13T11:41:46

More than 40 percent of ex-cons commit crimes within three years of their release and wind up back behind bars, despite billions in taxpayer dollars spent on prison systems that are supposed to help rehabilitate them, according to a study released Wednesday.

The study by the Pew Center on the States concluded there was only marginal improvement in the nation's recidivism rate even as spending on corrections departments has increased to about $52 billion annually from around $30 billion a decade ago.

About 43 percent of prisoners who were let out in 2004 were sent back to prison by 2007, either for a new crime or violating the conditions of their release, the study found. That number was down from 45 percent during a similar period beginning in 1999.

The stubborn recidivism rates are a sign the programs and policies designed to deter re-offenders were falling short, and lawmakers should consider treatment-based alternative sentences for nonviolent offenders, said Adam Gelb of the center's Public Safety Performance Project.

"We know so much more today than we did 30 years ago when prisons became the weapon of choice in the fight against crime," he said.

"There are new technologies and new strategies that research has shown can make a significant dent in return to prison rates," he added. "There are fewer and fewer policymakers who think that spending more taxpayer money to build more prisons is the best way to reduce crime."

Others were skeptical of sentencing reform efforts.

The president of the National District Attorneys Association said legislators shouldn't be too quick to abandon tough-on-crime policies in favor of alternative sentencing. Those initiatives only save money in the short-term, New Hampshire prosecutor Jim Reams said.

"The assumption is that these are all choir boys at the prison and if we let them out, all will be well. And it doesn't work that way," Reams said. "We're getting exactly what we deserve when we do this — we're getting more crime."

Holding system accountable
The Pew report found that of 33 states that reported data for both 1999 and 2004 releases, recidivism rates fell in 17 states and climbed in 15 states. One state reported no change.

Gelb cautioned that corrections departments alone aren't to blame — prosecutors, courts, probation officers and faith-based organizations also should be held accountable.

Wyoming and Oregon had the lowest overall recidivism rates for offenders released in 2004, with rates hovering below 25 percent.

Minnesota had the highest — more than 61 percent — while Alaska, California, Illinois, Missouri and Vermont all topped 50 percent.

The recidivism rate in Kansas dropped by more than 22 percent between 1999 and 2004, while it jumped by about 35 percent in South Dakota over the same period.

The 41 states that provided data for 2004 could save a combined $635 million in one year if they slashed their recidivism rates by 10 percent, the study found.

California, the home of the nation's largest prison system, could save $233 million in one year by slashing its recidivism rate by 10 percent.

The Pew results were similar to a 2002 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, but they only tracked a sample of offenders in a few states.

The Pew Center said its study, coordinated with the Association of State Correctional Administrators, was the first to provide state-level data from most of the nation's corrections systems.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Sobering report on black male prison population

  1. Closed captioning of: Sobering report on black male prison population

    >>> part of our week long coverage of a stronger america, the black agenda. new analysis of the u.s. prison population finds more black men are incarcerated now than were enslaved in 1850 . the figures are stunning, sober, eye-opening numbers. the latest estimates putting the number of imprisoned african-american men at more than 846,000. while black men account for roughly 6.5% of the u.s. population they make up 40.2% of the prison population. joining me now is mark lamont hill, professor of education in african- american studies at columbia university . it's a problem not discussed enough. however, when we talk about these sobering statistics that are out now, it really is eye opening and i think staggering for people to consider. so why is it that this country is putting away so many african-american men? do we have a definite reason for it?

    >> we live in a nation that's commitmented to punishment rather than dealing with the fundamental problems that lead to mass incarceration. in 1970 for example we only had about 250 to 300,000 people incarcerated. now in 2011 we have 2.5 million people. we didn't raise a generation of criminals, we shifted public policy in such a way it's easier to get incarcerated.

    >> wasn't that done out of noble causes to begin with with the population growth and the fact that crimes in this day and age are expanding to different fronts people hadn't considered then including technology crimes. does it make a difference in how we interpret these numbers?

    >> most people aren't in jail for things like technology crimes or other white collar crimes . the prison boom comes from the war on drugs which gains begins in mid-80s. four out of five people who are incarcerated for drugs are not dealers, they're small-time users. that's a criminalization of a medical problem. we've decided to use punishment instead of social resources.

    >> so the new naacp report ties state spending to investments in education. so nationwide $88,000 is spent on each incarcerated juvenile a year while $9,000 is spent educating each student. is that the answer to this over incarceration issue is the education of the youth of america ?

    >> it's a solution, it's not the only solution. there's no silver bullet . but certainly we live in a nation that's committed to first class jails and second class schools. if we decide we can put that money in education, yes, we would reduce the prison population. there's a relation between literacy rates and prison. mentori mentoring, sports, participatioparticipatio it all relates.

    >> let's look at parenting. 1 in 15 black children have a parent in prison compared to 1 in 111 white children. are witnessing a vicious cycle that's becoming engrained within the black community?

    >> there is a cycle of incarceration in african-americ african-american but the fact is black people are targeted for prison more. if i went to harvard or princeton i can arrest a lot of people for simple possession of drugs for public urination, for disorderly conduct. we go to poor counties in new york where three counties produce 70% of the prisoners. we do need to consider how mass incarceration takes fathers out of homes, takes people out of active citizenship. it really deteriorates the community. that's with we need to think about.

    >> mark lamont hill, great to have you on. appreciate it. and our series a stronger america, the plaque agenda airs all week on msnbc. then with a special show this sunday at noon eastern hosted by ed schultz .

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