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How to keep ex-inmates out of prison is a golden question that all 50 states have been juggling to answer for decades. The yet untamed rate of recidivism, which refers to an individual’s return to criminal activity after a release, is costing the U.S. taxpayers at least a trillion dollars every year, equivalent to about 5% of the country’s GDP. Although the national incarceration rate has been on a downtrend since 2010, and most states are downsizing their prisons, more than half of ex-inmates end up relapsing within three years of their release.
Congress hasn’t taken a backseat to fighting recidivism. To curtail prison population growth and combat one of the most repeated crimes — drugs, lawmakers in 2010 enacted a law that eliminates the minimum prison term for first-time drug offenders. Eight years later, another law was passed to optimize federal rehabilitative programs and other activities designed to help prepare prisoners for a post-jail life. Then Congress in 2020 decided to help fund any level of government entities or nonprofits providing services to those who are prone to recidivate due to mental illness or substance-use disorders.
Despite the high-level efforts to reduce the recidivism rate and thus depopulate the prisons, the cost of running local jails has been on a steady rise. Meanwhile, a statistical study shows more Americans believe the criminal justice system needs to prioritize punishing criminals rather than invest more money into rehabilitative programs.