A State in Turmoil
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 places 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 (notably heroin), and ineffective intervention strategies have contributed to worrying crime rates in The First State. In 2012, Delaware’s violent crime rate was the 7th highest among 50 states and Washington, D.C., according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Rating Tool. Worryingly, Delawares lack of knowledge about their 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 twenty 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. Concentrating on these residents and preventing them 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 is funded by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and serves both male and female clients. The program is able to house up to twenty-four people at a time, with additional slots available for home confinement. Program clients, who are mostly Wilmington residents, follow a work release model, receiving a full continuum of services, including:
- employment assistance and monitoring;
- substance abuse treatment;
- financial management;
- housing assistance;
- cognitive behavioral approach;
- problem solving;
- life skills;
- and individual & group counseling.
These services are crucial in helping the program’s clients re-enter society, secure housing, obtain sustainable employment, and stay out of prison. Since January 2014, the RRC has achieved a 76% overall program completion rate. While the program hasn’t been open long enough to gauge recidivism rates, this trend is positive.
New Intervention Strategies
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, Governor 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 many ex-offenders from obtaining interviews.
RRC Program Director Kristina Coldiron and her coworkers have furthered the effectiveness of House Bill 167 by navigating barriers to client success. In an interview, Ms. Coldiron explained that as a result of the bill, clients are now able to pass initial interviews and obtain positions. This represents a great first step, but clients still face difficulties. A number of clients have begun a new job, then been terminated once their background checks have been completed. This can be more damaging to them than not being interviewed, as they waste time and have their successes dashed.
This pattern generally takes place at larger companies, which offer higher wages for targeted jobs (around $11 to $13; Delaware’s minimum wage was $7.75 as of March 2015), as well as benefits and full-time positions. To address these obstacles, RRC clients have focused on seeking employment at locally-owned businesses rather than national corporations. While these positions pay less, Ms. Coldiron estimates that 80% of the clients can supplement their wages by using family support to secure food and housing. Clients who were not able to gain access to family support have been able to use community resources.
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. Programs and laws that allow ex-offenders to obtain employment and support their families will help the state achieve strong outcomes.