STURTEVANT — Eighteen inmates dropped a combined 15 years from their prison sentences this November when they were released early from Racine Correctional Institution.
They were part of the Earned Release Program which allows inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes to leave prison early if they complete a substance abuse program. State and prison officials say it helps reduce the chance of criminals reoffending.
By taking an intensive six-month program in prison to curb substance addictions and related criminal behavior, those 18 inmates collectively shaved 5,723 days off their sentences, freeing up their beds by about 10 months apiece on average, according to the Department of Corrections. The time they would have served is added to their extended supervision time, which they spend out of prison but still under state supervision.
By RCI’s estimates, those 5,723 days would have cost the state about $521,000. However, state officials note that this calculation does not factor in some costs and the possibility that released inmates may go back to prison.
How it works
When the Earned Release Program was introduced to two state prisons in 2004, the intent was to safely identify a release valve for its participants, according to Tony Streveler, research and policy director at the DOC. The goal is to reduce their risk of reoffending, he said.
Introduced to RCI in 2007, the program is designed to help inmates curb addictions as well as instill lawful lifestyles, according to Tina Ettinger, who supervises the program at the Sturtevant prison.
It focuses on inmates convicted of crimes related to use of illegal drugs or alcohol and who are flagged during the sentencing process as being eligible to participate.
“Pretty much any inmate, as long as they have a substance abuse problem at sentencing, is eligible,” Ettinger said. “Basically you cannot be a sex offender or commit a violent crime with a weapon.”
Enrolled inmates are housed together, separate from the rest of the prison while they participate in either a program focusing on drug abuse or alcohol abuse.
Inmates must have at least nine months left to serve in prison in order to participate, RCI Deputy Warden Ronald Malone explained.
The program includes classes meant to “change criminal thinking,” focusing on victim impact, relapse prevention, stress and anger management and basic social skills, Ettinger said.
Enrolling in GED classes is also a component of the program for inmates without a high school diploma, she said.
This year, 230 inmates enrolled in the regular program focusing on illegal drug use and 80 inmates enrolled in the program focusing on those convicted of drunken driving, according to DOC data.
The state was unable to provide data on how many inmates completed the program this year at RCI, but it has grown from 170 inmates enrolled in 2008 to 310 inmates enrolled in both the drugs and alcohol programs in 2013, according to the DOC.
On average, the drug program has a completion rate of 76 percent since the program started in 2007, and the drunken driving program has an average completion rate of 72 percent since it began in 2011.
More than 800 inmates completed the program at RCI from 2007-12, according to state data.
Reducing repeat crimes
Despite the program being relatively new and difficult to judge, Streveler said data collected in 2012 show it is working. He said the best way to judge success is to look at the program’s recidivism rate: how many of its alumni end up being convicted of a new crime.
Streveler and other analysts followed inmates released in 2009 statewide for about three years after their release.
That data showed a recidivism rate of about 21 percent for those who completed the program, compared with about 27 percent for those eligible to be in the program who did not participate and about 23 percent of the overall population released.
However, state and local officials acknowledged there will always be some criminals that will continue to commit crimes no matter how effective programs such as the Earned Release Program may be.
“It’s the nature of the business,” Malone said. “Even though it is a good program, sometime people who complete the program will get in trouble again.”
Racine Correctional Institution officials say it costs about $91 per day to house an inmate in the prison system. Based on that number, officials say the state can “avert” tens of thousands to millions of dollars in costs when releasing prisoners early.
However, exact savings of releasing an inmate early are hard to calculate.
The $91 it costs to hold a prisoner per day figures in costs like security and heat, expenses that do not go away with the release of several dozen prisoners, according to Tony Streveler, research and policy director at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
While the earned release program reduces days served in prison for individual inmates, there is no real savings to the department until they are able to close down a wing or see other forms of savings, he said.
He further explained that an inmate released through this program and then sent back to prison would negate any projected savings, although Streveler’s data showed the chance of recidivism is reduced when inmates complete the earned release program.