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Neli Vazquez Rowland Headshot

Expanding Overcrowding and Financial Costs of Criminal Justice Systems Unites Global Prison Leaders

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US PRISONS
Giorgio Fochesato via Getty Images

In March 2014, I was asked to speak among experts from around the world at the International Exhibition and Seminar on Correctional Facilities entitled "Una Ventana Al Mundo De La Reclusión" at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá, Colombia. The conference was developed and coordinated by the Colombian Ministry of Justice in partnership with the university in order to bring together global government and private industry leaders from Spain, Belgium, Argentina, the United States and other countries to discuss the exploding global rates of incarceration and recidivism. Internationally, the rate of recidivism for offenders returning to the prison system within three years of release exceeds 70 percent. This cycle creates an alarming burden on all respective economies. Around the world, there is genuine interest in re-thinking crime prevention, criminal justice and prison delivery systems.

The Colombian leadership and reform efforts that are transforming their capital city, Bogotá, and country from its reputation as one of the most dangerous countries in the world into a vibrant economic destination for investment set the stage for the conference. The nation's commitment to investing in workforce development and reducing corruption is not going unnoticed by investors. By comparison, last year Bogotá attracted $2.76 billion in investment compared to Chicago's $1.4 billion. According to Luis Enrique Alamos, principle associate of Price Waterhouse Coopers, "The political and economic stability and growth prospects associated with its internal market, have positioned Colombia as a very attractive destination to invest in for the countries of the region."

At the conference, attendees considered the causes of crime and the problems prison populations face at the root level; and investing in ways to help offenders reintegrate into society as positive and productive citizens of their communities, reducing recidivism rates. It was exciting to address a captive, international audience about our experience serving reentry populations at A Safe Haven through our social enterprise model in Chicago that empirical data presents as a more holistic, person-centered solution than traditional reentry programs. Programs at A Safe Haven are designed to provide safe housing, nutrition, adult education, substance abuse and mental health treatment, job training and placement. What makes A Safe Haven unique is the 'vertically integrated ecosystem' that not only includes comprehensive social services, but also helps provide employment and permanent housing to people with significant barriers.

A Safe Haven invests and partners with social enterprise businesses that create landscaping, catering, pest control, customer service and sales jobs and employ individuals that have earned a second chance. Besides sparking significant economic development in poverty-stricken communities by creating employment and housing opportunities, the social enterprise businesses enhance the foundation's sustainability in light of shrinking government budgets for human service agencies. Every country should consider this approach as a viable option for prevention because it addresses fundamental human needs and provides successful and cost-effective alternatives to incarceration.

Regretfully, the United States criminal justice system has the highest prison population in the world with 2.2 million people incarcerated and approximately 7.7 million people under some form of correctional supervision; and the system has a recidivism rate in excess of 70 percent. According to a PEW Research study, the high recidivism rate accounts for most of the $52 billion spent on existing correctional systems, the study also indicated that a 10 percent reduction in the rate of recidivism would generate future cost-savings of almost $700 million.

The total costs of incarceration from causes to consequences are incalculable and rising. Without a comprehensive plan to address the structural causes of recidivism and incarceration, these costs will continue to rise and burden our economy. The Bogotá conference on correctional facilities was an open forum indicating that the rest of the world is acknowledging that these unsustainable costs can only be reduced by addressing the "real" issues for individuals in the criminal justice system, often rooted in poverty related issues.

The trip and opportunity to speak moved me to break my own perceptions of a nation that I believed was mired in corruption and crime. I found myself inspired as I witnessed government leaders making a commitment to building a more humane, accountable and sustainable society by considering new ideas. They were open to a new paradigm of involving community stakeholders in incarceration and re-entry services. In times of global turmoil, it is important to remember that there are countries investing in comprehensive progress for their people.

It was exciting to see that our work in Chicago is serving as a blue print for innovation and being embraced as an international model by these leaders; they saw its potential to improve challenging, entrenched systems with superior performance metrics. Our mission at A Safe Haven is to offer solutions to poverty and crime; and alternative approaches and systems with a proven track record of impacting long-term, sustainable economic self-sufficiency for our clients. In our home city of Chicago, we were proud to offer a spotlight of hope in a city that has been mired in the media with much of the same controversy that plagued Bogotá, Colombia. In the United States, we must continue to invest in 'best practices' for human services that will reduce our prison population and return our nation to a global destination for tourists, corporations and investors.