COMMENTARY: Crime, recidivism and solutions in Delaware

While crime in the United States has declined steadily since the early 1990s, a handful of states have had marked trouble in recent years. While states such as Louisiana, Florida, and Texas receive the lion’s share of media coverage, some remain overlooked, including the nation’s first state, Delaware.

Poverty, drug addiction, and ineffective intervention strategies have contributed to worrying crime rates in The First State. In 2012, Delaware’s violent-crime rate was the seventh-highest among 50 states and Washington, D.C., according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Rating Tool. Worryingly, Delaware’s lack of knowledge about its crime rates made it difficult to create effective intervention practices.

For years, Delaware did not track its rates of recidivism, or re-offenses. Prior to 2013, the last time the state measured recidivism statistics was in 2000, in a survey of prisoners in the 1980s and early 1990s. Without these data, it is difficult to tell which practices reduce crime and which need to be changed. Tracking recidivism rates and intervening with evidence-based practices, among other factors, has helped many states cut crime over the past 20 years. Successful interventions in states such as New York, New Jersey, and California have removed enormous emotional and financial burdens from their residents.

Since 2013, Delaware has taken some important steps towards clearly measuring statistics and creating useful interventions. This began with a July 2013 release of an analysis of prisoners released in 2008 and 2009. The report, published by the Delaware Criminal Justice Council Statistics Analysis Center, found that after three years, 77.1 percent of prisoners who were released in 2008 and 76.4 percent who were released in 2009 were rearrested, with 71.7 and 71.0 reconvicted, respectively.

Finding ways to stop this cycle of re-offense became a statewide news story. Preventing these residents from cycling in and out of the criminal justice system became a strategy to lower crime and has had a positive impact on families.
Since May 2013, Community Solutions Inc. has operated the Delaware Residential Re-entry Center (RRC), the first program of its kind in the state.

The RRC, located in Wilmington, is funded by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and serves both males and females. The program houses up to 24 people at a time, with additional slots available for home confinement. Program clients, who are mostly Wilmington residents, receive a full continuum of services. These services help clients re-enter society, obtain sustainable employment, and stay out of prison. Since January 2014, the RRC has achieved a 76-percent overall program completion rate. While the program hasn’t been open long enough to gauge recidivism rates, this trend is positive.

In concert with the 2013 recidivism statistics, Delaware has made a bevy of changes to reform its criminal justice system. New and improved statistical tracking, data analysis, and critical thinking have modernized their practices. In summer 2014, Gov. Jack Markell signed several promising bills aimed at reducing crime.

While these bills affect Delaware’s residents in a number of ways, House Bill 167, also known as “Ban the Box,” is arguably the most high-profile. The bill forbids public employers from asking applicants to check a box on their applications if they have a criminal record. This practice was preventing ex-offenders from obtaining interviews.

RRC Program Director Kristina Coldiron and her co-workers have furthered the effectiveness of House Bill 167 by navigating barriers to client success. In an interview, Ms. Coldiron explained that while clients are now able to pass initial interviews and obtain positions, they face new difficulties. A number of clients have started a new job, only to be terminated once their background checks have been completed.

This pattern generally takes place at larger companies, which typically offer higher wages for targeted jobs. To address these obstacles, clients have focused on seeking employment at locally owned businesses. While these positions pay less, Ms. Coldiron estimates that 80 percent of the clients can supplement their wages by using family support to secure food and housing.

With a crop of legislative changes and new recidivism data, Delaware appears to be on the path to less recidivism. Continuing to follow best practices and using proven interventions will help the state create safer communities for its residents and achieve lasting outcomes.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Andrew Serrano is Marketing and Grants Coordinator of Community Solutions Inc., in Wilmington.

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