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Phoenix Forward

How to stop repeat offenders from doing time — time and again

Finding solutions for recidivism

Henry Earl of Lexington, Ky., has been arrested more than 1,300 times. Since the ’90s, he’s spent roughly twice as much of his life in jail as he has out.

His incredibly lengthy rap sheet and quirky mug shots have made him a pop icon on the Internet. What seems to pique people’s interest is his inability to learn from mistakes: Despite having spent about 5,000 days in jail, he continues to break the law.

Earl is the poster child for recidivism, which is a big problem for our criminal justice system. According to a 1994 Bureau of Justice Statistics study, 68 percent of recently released convicts were re-arrested within three years and 46.9 percent were reconvicted. While the next report won’t be available until later this year, a review of more recent state data indicates that there’s been no stopping the merry-go-round.

“There is no singular solution to criminal recidivism,” said University of Phoenix associate dean of the School of Advanced Studies Rob Olding, who is also a former warden. “However, many studies today commonly look at the issues that convicted criminals face during their transition from prison back into the community.”

Those issues include a lack of education or skills, health resources, family support and a challenging job market — a problem that’s amplified by the barrier of a criminal record, Olding noted.

Perhaps the most important solution is the availability of education.

He pointed out that many states are struggling to come up with measures to smooth the transition process, including ideas such as establishing new “best practices” for employers to appropriately interpret criminal records, increasing access to affordable housing with stipends or vouchers, and improved coordination of health services for those with mental health diagnoses. But perhaps the most important solution is the availability of education, Olding said, to help offenders earn their high school or college degree.

That’s the motivation behind Innovative Concept Academy in St. Louis, the nation’s first school for juvenile offenders run by a court system. After seeing the same young faces at his hearings time and again, Juvenile Court Judge Jimmie Edwards founded the charter school in 2009. Students in grades 6-12 are required to stay in school until they graduate (or earn their GED) and get a job. The result is already very encouraging: While juvenile recidivism in St. Louis is 27 percent, Innovative Concept’s student body has reduced its return rate to just 11 percent.

With voters consistently supporting “tough on crime” politics, however, these types of solutions — and subsequent funding — are often hard to come by. Luckily for the kids in St. Louis, Innovative Concept Academy is primarily supported by private donations.  

As for repeat-offender Earl, he caught a break when a judge recognized that doing time wasn’t doing the trick. The judge found a rehab that would take him as an alternative to incarceration. He took the deal, saying he was finally ready to make a change — thanks to a little creativity and compassion from the court system with which he was all too familiar.