Iowa’s return-to-prison ‘recidivism’ rate drops for 3rd year in a row

DES MOINES — Iowa Department of Corrections director Beth Skinner says the recidivism rate among individuals who’ve been released from prison has dropped for a third straight year — meaning there’s a decline in the number of people violating the terms of their parole or committing a crime that sends them back to prison.

“We are moving and trending in the right direction in terms of our recidivism reduction efforts,” Skinner says.

Skinner says there are several reasons the rate is declining, like focusing on getting substance abuse or mental health treatment for those who are at highest risk and improving the skills of those who’ve been sentenced to prison. “Our apprenticeship program, we actually did a research study on that, and we found out among those who completed the apprenticeship program the recidivism rate was 16.3% compared to non-completers, which was 32.7%,” Skinner says, “so we want to really double down on our apprenticeship program and our post-secondary education.”

There are 30 different registered apprenticeship programs in the Department of Corrections, including training to be plumbers, welders and electricians. “What’s great about these apprenticeships programs is it’s really preparing people for when they get out, because we know 90% of people are going to be leaving prison,” Skinner says. “They have to show up to work, they get evaluated, they get paid — all of those things. We look at it as a way for preparing them for when they come out.”

Sometimes up to half the people who enter Iowa’s prison system each year do not have a high school diploma. Skinner says among those who are released, 60% have completed high school. “We want to help them get jobs when they get out, maybe a higher earning base,” Skinner says, “so we here at the Department of Corrections really emphasize the importance of education and apprenticeship programs and work skills.”

Due to the government reorganization plan the governor signed into law this spring, Iowa’s community-based corrections system is now part of the Iowa Department of Corrections. Skinner says that may have prevent people released from one of the state’s nine prisons from re-offending. “We want to improve release plans. We want more of a seamless comprehensive handoff, continuity of services — so there’s a lot of communication going on now between the counselors and the work release facilities or parole officers,” Skinner says. “Not only are the parole officer and the counselor working together in the prison, they’re working with this individual that’s coming out, so this alignment’s going to have a lot of positive impact on our public safety outcomes.”

The rate at which released offenders were being sent back to prison had been climbing — to as high as 40% four years go — but Skinner says she’s confident the recidivism rate in Iowa’s correctional system will continue to decline because of the “buy-in” from prison employees. “If you don’t have the qualified staff who are committed to public safety outcomes who are committed to this work, it would not be possible,” Skinner says.

Skinner has been the director of the Iowa Department of Corrections since June of 2019. There are nearly 41,000 people in Iowa’s correctional system today, only a fifth of whom are in a state prison. The rest are under supervision in a community setting, like a work-release program or halfway house.