Prison cells across America are full of men and women who have been there once, twice, three times before.
They are the recidivists – criminals who left prison then broke the law again.
Their cycle of crime comes at a high price not only for them as they lose their freedom over and over, but for the taxpayers who pay to keep them behind bars.
Recidivism has been described as an epidemic, but reporting shows it may be the symptom rather than disease.
A Bureau of Justice Statistics study that tracked 400,000 released prisoners across 30 states from 2005-2010 found that two-thirds were rearrested within three years of release. Within five years, three-quarters were rearrested.
While a good chunk of the recidivists repeated serious felonies, such as rape or robbery, many of them went back to jail for less serious infractions, such as minor public order offenses.
The crime could be public intoxication or driving with a suspended license, authorities said.
Georgia’s recidivism rate hovers at about 30 percent, meaning three out of every 10 released prisoners relapse into crime within three years, which is the time range most government agencies use to measure recidivism.
But according to the Georgia Center for Opportunity, the state’s rate surges closer to 50 percent when including “the number of people who commit a technical violation while on probation and parole, as well as the number of offenders who recidivate after the standard three-year time period.”
A technical violation is when someone doesn’t meet the standards of parole or probation, such as failing to check in weekly. And in many places, such as Florida’s Suwannee, Hamilton and Lafayette counties, those minor missteps add large numbers to the group of reoffenders.
Florida’s recidivism rate is 25 percent, and the state’s Department of Corrections attributes that comparatively low number to Florida paroling very few inmates and having a low number of court-ordered supervisions for released prisoners.
“Historically, inmates who are supervised following release have recidivated at a higher rate than those without post-release supervision,” according to information on the Florida DOC website. “Since fewer of Florida's released inmates participate in court-ordered supervision, Florida's recidivism rate is lower than that of other states.
“It is not surprising that California, for example, releases the majority of their inmates to supervision and their recidivism rate is 61 percent.”
In the SunLight Project Coverage area — Valdosta, Dalton, Tifton, Thomasville, Moultrie and Milledgeville, Ga., along with Live Oak, Jasper and Mayo, Fla., and the surrounding counties — many of the agencies that track local recidivism are recording startlingly high numbers of reoffenders.
In Thomas County, about 90 percent of the jail population is made up of repeat offenders. About 50 percent were on probation when arrested.
Of the 448 inmates currently in the Whitfield County Jail, just eight have no prior arrests.
A recent snapshot of the Colquitt County Jail showed 85 percent of 194 inmates had been incarcerated in the county jail at least once before, and for most it was not their second or third arrest.
The colossal problem of recidivism is forcing local, state and federal governments to find ways to not only house criminals but to keep them from coming back once they’re set loose.
Authorities said fighting recidivism starts with treating the root problems: drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, lack of education, unstable home environments and a workforce that is notoriously unfriendly to ex-cons.
The Root Causes: Substance Abuse, Mental Illness
A Thomasville judge said alcohol is the overwhelming cause of recidivism, with drug abuse and mental illness coming in as close seconds.
"The Thomas County Jail is the state mental hospital right now," said Mark Mitchell, judge of Thomas County State Court and Thomasville Municipal Court. “In my view, we functionally have no public mental health system since Southwestern (State Hospital) closed.”
Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk said closing the Thomas County mental hospital was a “terrible mistake” because it served several counties in the area.
Mitchell said he and Jay Fielding, state court solicitor, attempt to steer people into treatment programs to prevent crime.
But programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and agencies such as Behavioral Health Services are overwhelmed by the sheer number of people needing treatment, Paulk said.
Gale Buckner recalls one gentleman in particular from her years serving on the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles.
"He had done something to mess up, and we were holding a hearing to decide whether to send him back to prison," she said. "He broke my heart because he was dealing with a mental health issue, and he said the best mental health care he'd gotten was when he was in prison.
“In prison, he'd gotten on medicines that worked for him for the first time. When he got out, it took him about three months to get a doctor, and that doctor would not prescribe those medicines for him.”
Buckner said the state’s recidivism rates would drop if it had more mental health resources.
Tift County Sheriff Gene Scarbrough estimates up to 90 percent of his inmates are there because of drug activity, and he said their addictions keep them out of work and bouncing in and out of treatment facilities.
“Some of them think they want help but they leave the facilities where they’re trying to dry out and get right back into it,” Scarbrough said. “We don’t have the funds within the Sheriff’s Association or the sheriff’s office here to do programs that help them."
Brad Shealy, Southern district attorney, agreed; substance abuse is probably the number one reason why people reoffend.
“These people are simply addicted to a particular drug or drugs and may stay clean a little while after they are released before the addiction takes over. Most drug offenders — those that use, not sell or distribute — we place on probation and require them to do drug testing, treatment/screening, and obtain a GED in an attempt to help them,” Shealy said.
“But because of the addiction, many are revoked a number of times before they are finally sent to prison. Once they are released from prison, the cycle begins again and many eventually reoffend. The problem with this issue is that no matter what my office, the judge or probation does, it is up to the offender to admit he or she has a problem before true rehabilitation can begin.”
Shealy said many released prisoners suffer from a mental illness to a degree that makes getting them help strangely difficult.
“Unfortunately, many fall in a gap where their mental health is not bad enough to commit to inpatient treatment but is not good enough to deal with society. They sometimes deal with drugs, some commit crimes of violence or are involved in domestic violence,” Shealy said.
“The state offers little in the way of outpatient treatment, and many who are on medication don't take it as prescribed. Once they are released from prison and put out on their own, the likelihood to reoffend is high."
Rod Howell, Colquitt County’s chief jailer, said he’s seen few repeat offenses where drugs weren’t involved.
In Colquitt County, major drug abuse nearly always means crystal meth or prescription painkillers, Howell said. And often at the center of addiction is a mental-health issue for which the offender uses prohibited or illegally obtained pharmaceuticals in an effort at self-medication.
For more than four years, Colquitt County's Accountability Court has worked to help offenders whose legal issues are related to drug use or mental illness stay out of jail.
The court pulls drug-using or mentally ill offenders out of the normal judicial system and addresses their offenses in a strict but supportive atmosphere. The belief behind the court is that the offender’s drug use or mental illness is the cause of his criminal activity, so by addressing those root medical problems, the court can help the offender resume a law-abiding life.
Through September, six people had successfully completed the program, which requires a minimum of about 20 months. Each month a number of the participants — who are drug-tested each week and subject to random tests at any time — usually end up in jail for a few days when they violate the terms of the program.
"If we can just reduce some of our recidivism with (the Accountability Court), I think it will be worth it," Howell said. "If we save one, that's one more than we could have if we hadn't tried.”
Several other counties in the region, including Tift and Lowndes, are also trying out the accountability courts in an attempt to rehabilitate criminals.
“It’s a step in the right direction, I think. It’s cheaper to put them in the program than it is to put them in jail,” Tift County’s Sheriff Scarbrough said.
But he said the treatment is useless unless participants actually want reform.
“If they don’t want it for themselves, you’re wasting your time,” Scarbrough said.
Thomas County’s Mitchell agreed.
"You've got to want to get better. Nobody's going to get off alcohol and drugs until they want to,” Mitchell said.
But even former prisoners who don’t suffer from addiction or mental illness can encounter a mountain of other challenges when trying to live crime-free.
The Root Problems: Unemployment, Poor Education, ‘A Broken System’
If a prisoner is released but can’t find a job, he or she is more likely to return to crime, authorities said.
“Some of them that’s the only life they’ve known. They’re not going to get a job. They’re not going to keep a job. They think it’s easier to steal,” Paulk said.
For released prisoners looking for work, the odds are stacked against them, Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress said.
“I think our system’s broken because you’ve heard the old cliché, ‘You’ve paid your debt to society; now you can go back into the work force.’ That isn’t true because the first thing people do is they check to see if you’re a convicted felon. If you’re a convicted felon, you’re labeled,” Childress said.
“If you’re going through a list of 50 applications, and you’ve got a line on it that says convicted felon, what are you going to do with that? Throw it out.”
Childress said employers should “ban the box” and stop asking applicants if they’re a convicted felon, which is something the City of Valdosta has already done, he added.
“If you remove that box, it at least will give you a possible opportunity to meet the person,” Childress said. “Just because somebody’s a convicted felon doesn’t mean they’re a thug. We’ve all made mistakes.
“I just don’t think it’s fair if you don’t remove that box. That’s why you have these high recidivism rates. And it’s not just here; it’s all over the country.”
Childress said finding ex-criminals jobs greatly reduces their risk of re-offending. That’s why his department is actively involved in an annual job fair that connects former prisoners and other hopeful applicants with local employers.
Capt. Brad King, a Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office detective, said the county’s “horrible” recidivism rate can be traced back to the government’s “earlier sins” of early parole and multiple probations.
“What you have to understand is probation and parole was not designed to corral a career criminal. That is what the institution is for. There’s always going to be a need for incarceration.”
King said he had always thought of probation as being for someone who had made a mistake.
“Over the years that has changed,” King said. “What I have seen is less and less length on sentences. “
Even accountability courts aren’t enough to stop someone who is bent on committing crime after crime, King said, and he thinks stiffer sentences would help cut down on repeat offenders.
But Colquitt County’s Howell said that for non-violent offenders, he’s seen that long periods of lock-up don’t work to rehabilitate prisoners.
Regardless, a reduction in crime could have some big payoffs for the county, for which close to half its budget is in some way related to arresting, trying and holding prisoners.
Jail operations account for $3.34 million in the county's current budget year that ends on June 30. Costs at the county-operated prison account for another $1.8 million in costs which are partially covered by state payments for housing inmates.
Paulk is working to cut down on Lowndes County jail costs with a program allowing non-violent inmates to work full-time jobs while serving their prison sentence.
Paulk partners with local employers to give qualifying inmates a job, as well as normal work clothes and transportation to and from the job each day.
“So the employer knows they’re going to be on time (and) knows they’re going to be drug-free and sober,” Paulk said.
The workers aren’t allowed to use cell phones or tobacco, and they can’t leave the job or have visitors.
“A lot of employers say they make some of their best employees with the restrictions they’re under.”
The workers get a check every Friday, and they have an agreement where the money goes, such as to fines or child support.
The sheriff’s office charges the workers $10 a day for transportation, clothing and other expenses, which covers the cost of the program, Paulk said.
The best news for the workers is if they do the job well and don’t get fired, their prison sentence is cut in half.
“So looking at it from the taxpayer’s standpoint, if you take six months off a sentence, 180 days, $50 a day, that’s $9,000 an inmate,” Paulk said.
He said many inmates remain at their jobs even after leaving prison.
“Say you get out of jail for a child support violation and don’t have a job. If you don’t find a job real quick, you’re going to be violated again. But if you get out of jail and you go right to the same job you’ve had for the last six months, it works pretty well. The majority of the people that are in the program will maintain their job once they're out,” Paulk said.
But not everywhere has a work program like the one in Lowndes County, and sometimes a lack of education can keep released prisoners from finding work, District Attorney Shealy said.
Lack of education also leads many young people to join gangs, and once they are released from prison and unable to find work, they go back to gangs and eventually reoffend, Shealy said.
"Whenever we place people on probation, we try to mandate that they complete high school or obtain a GED to help alleviate this aspect," Shealy said.
The character of a person’s household also matters, Shealy said. Once offenders are released from prison, they might return to the same household where they originally got into trouble.
Shealy said the home might be in a high-crime area or filled with family members who are also convicted felons and lead an offender back into crime.
“Putting them back in the same environment that led to the original trouble is just not a good idea. They truly need a clean slate,” Shealy said.
Buckner, who is now the chief judge in Murray County Magistrate Court, has worked as a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent, head of the state's Department of Juvenile Justice and as a member and chief of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. She has also been executive director of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
In those positions, she’s seen why some criminals go back to crime and others don't. And she said a strong support network makes a big difference.
"When an inmate comes back out into the free world, he or she is often lacking support from friends or family. That may be because they have burned every bridge they had because of their past conduct,” Buckner said.
“Without a strong support network, even if someone wants to do the right thing, it's very easy for folks to get discouraged and maybe slip back into their old habits."
A little more than a decade ago, Buckner gathered faith leaders and others from Whitfield and Murray counties at Holly Creek Baptist Church in Chatsworth to see how the community could form a support network for those who needed it. The result was Project Destiny.
Parolees are often released with just the clothes on their backs, a $25 debit card and a few days supplies of any prescription medicines they take. Project Destiny, based in Dalton, provides them with clothing vouchers to get clothes at Providence Ministries or the Salvation Army.
The program helps get state IDs or driver’s licenses, transportation to job interviews or medical appointments and vouchers for clothing from local thrift stores. It also assists people in signing up for GED classes.
"When they come out of prison, their parole officers and probation officers tell them about the resources we offer," said Wesley Johnson, executive director of Project Destiny. "Someone coming out of prison has to have a desire to change his ways. We can't do anything without that desire.
“But if we can surround them with the right environment, they are going to be more likely to succeed.”
Project Destiny gets all of its funding from private donations and relies on local churches for assistance.
On a state level, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has instituted the Georgia Prisoner Reentry Initiative to prepare offenders for release.
It begins in prison where the offender is advised to take courses that will provide him or her with skills or education to obtain a job after release. The program attempts to find them a place to live to keep them away from the bad influences that got them into trouble originally and works with local employers to find jobs for offenders.
Thomasville Police Chief Troy Rich said fighting recidivism is a comprehensive process of education, rehabilitation and job placement.
That’s why some local clergy go to jails to educate inmates on being a productive citizen with the hopes they will take the words to heart when they leave prison.
"If it makes an impression on one, it's one less we have to worry about," Rich said.
The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Eve Guevara, Patti Dozier, Billy Hobbs, Alan Mauldin and Charles Oliver, along with the writer, team leader John Stephen.
To contact the team, email email@example.com.