Trendspotting: New Math


While I should have been participating with an informed panel on the cost benefits of direct supervision at the recent AJA Conference in Sacramento, I had previously agreed to facilitate a weeklong seminar on strategic planning for women offenders in Northern Ireland.

Although I am very fond of my would-have-been fellow panelists, as well as Sacramento, the topic and the setting of Ulster’s historic Hillsborough Castle was too seductive. However, I would like to take this opportunity to opine a few words about the cost of direct supervision.

Since the mid-1980s, much has been written about direct supervision and why people often choose this path in planning a new institution. Much is owed to the early pioneers of the direct supervision philosophy, such as Ray Nelson, Larry Ard, Gary Mote, Art Wallenstein, Mike O’Toole, and Jim Webster, who among many other administrators and designers, demonstrated the concept in economic and operational terms.

While I cannot recall the precise number, an educated guess would say that of the more than 1 million bed spaces constructed during the past 25 years, at least 50 percent followed most of the nine principles of direct supervision. As we approach the end of the first decade of this new millennium, evidence abounds that the benefits noted in the early debates of direct supervision have been sustained.

The management and design of correctional facilities is not easily altered and is not subject to abrupt diversions from traditional methods of operation, configuration and construction. When a new approach is adapted and sustained for a quarter of a century, a financial advantage must be apparent somewhere in the equation.

Re-Entry and Direct Supervision

To achieve the reduction in re-offending that re-entry purports, an important success predictor will be the extent to which offenders have been directly supervised prior to placement in a re-entry program.

Not only will this thesis require a little voodoo mathematics, but also a definition of re-entry.

I believe re-entry is a philosophy, a program and a place. In the struggle to “tag” the concept for legislative and funding purposes, jurisdictions have focused on one, two or all three of these qualifiers.

The fact that re-entry has a philosophical and programmatic basis is uniformly accepted, but not all definitions include place as a defining factor. For example, Massachusetts counties have individually and collectively developed a concept of re-entry that begins at intake and follows the offender through and beyond incarceration. The focus is clearly on a philosophy of management and the programs that reduce re-offending.

California is proposing to build 12,000 places to support specific programs for re-entry. In this example, place is very important to the anticipated success of the initiative.

The advent of the direct supervision model brought fundamental change to the configuration, construction and operation of correctional facilities.

Looking back to the origins of what was called “new generation,” “direct supervision” and “third generation,” the foundation was also the 3 P’s; a philosophy of managing offenders; a program of training staff how to communicate their wishes effectively; and a place designed to be safe while normative in configuration and materials. Many measurable outcomes resulted from this combination such as reduced violence, less sick calls, reduced use of punitive separations, and so on. 

A new chapter of corrections was written without a lot of notice by the general public. Administrators, officers and architects quietly constructed a foundation for an even greater success in the future.

Although the general public rarely has an opinion about direct or indirect supervision, it does have an opinion on recidivism. The reality that more than 90 percent of inmates are released and 65 percent of those inmates will return to custody usually elicits an opinion.

An economic connection between direct supervision and re-entry should be made. Re-entry does not rely upon a specially designed environment to be successful. A well administered program with a philosophical basis that recognizes the potential in each individual can be successful in lean-to. The success of direct supervision is also not environment-dependant. I actually worked on a project in South Dakota where the cells were tee pees in a warehouse.

However, we have all learned from more than two decades of designing for direct supervision that place can be a significant aid in fostering the type of communication upon which the philosophy of direct supervision is based.

My economic premise is that for re-entry to be successful, the same nine management principles that were used to define direct supervision are necessary and that a future cost can be predicted for not recognizing at least four of the nine, including:

No. 2: Effective Supervision. Staff must be in direct contact with inmates and rely heavily on personal interaction with inmates in their supervision.

No. 5: Manageable and Cost Effective Operations. Running a less dangerous institution allows for more architectural options, reduces costs and provides an incentive for inmates to maintain acceptable standards of behavior.

No. 6: Effective Communication. Frequent communication between staff and inmates is critical.

No. 8: Justice and Fairness. Conditions of incarceration must respect inmates’ constitutional rights. Inmates must believe that they will be treated fairly and that there are administrative remedies for disputes.

The curious calculus that follows is based on the premise that the insidious cost of corrections is in the high percentage of re-offending and that recidivist offenders have not been challenged to accept responsibility for their decisions in large part because this fundamental requirement has not been communicated effectively.

Of the 800,000 inmates held in U.S. jails, based upon current averages, 520,000 will re-offend. Dropping the recidivism rate to 50 percent would represent 120,000 inmates that do not re-offend.

While the cost of recidivism varies dramatically by offense type, geographic location, local attitudes and economy, size of the criminal justice community, and many other variables, the economic impact is most evident in six categories. Although the following estimated cost per re-offender is conservative and based on observation and not detailed research, the approach to identifying the impact is logical:

• Investigation and Re-Arrest: $4,000
• Prosecution and Defense: $ 24,000
• Public Assistance to Family: $ 21,000
• Pre-Trial Incarceration: $9,000
• Re-Imprisonment: $37,500
• Post Release Supervision: $9,000
— Estimate per Re-Offender: $104,500

Some will understandably argue that to suggest direct supervision has anything to do with the propensity to re-offend is flawed logic. To suggest that a reduction in expenditure of $125 million annually by reducing recidivism by 15 percentage points may also be a stretch many cannot accept. But if we agree that the most good we can do during the stage of re-entry is to promote the notion of responsibility and accountability, then starting the journey toward acceptance of these desired outcomes begins with communication.

Removing the barriers to communication is fundamental in all nine direct supervision principles. Not only does removal of the barriers reduce the cost of construction, the seeds of hope for a sustainable philosophy of supervising an offender’s trek through the criminal justice system are more effectively cultivated.

A far more scientific analysis is necessary to document the premise that offenders incarcerated in direct supervision environments throughout their incarceration have a measurably higher success rate in re-entry programs.

Properly conceived, administered and sheltered, re-entry is our last great hope to reform incarceration to a point where those leaving the experience will have little desire to return. Much has been learned about the cost advantages of direct supervision through improving communication and reducing harm. Continuing these lessons into the final stages of incarceration has to be an easy lesson to follow.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C., and a Correctional News Columnist.