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Aug 28, 10:33 AM EDT

Data show increase in ex-offenders returning to Iowa prisons



DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- There's an increase in the number of former Iowa inmates returning to prison, according to new data, and corrections officials are still figuring out why.

The Iowa Department of Corrections measures recidivism as the percent of offenders released from prison or work release who return to corrections within three years. For the budget year that ended in June, just over 1,600 offenders were in that category for a rate of 34.2 percent. That's up from 31.9 percent the previous year, when just over 1,500 inmates returned.

It's the second consecutive year the rate increased.

Lettie Prell, research director for the department, said the last two years of data could be part of a statistical fluctuation but her office is analyzing the data to take a closer look and determine possible causes. She plans to release a report this fall.

"This is the power of statistics to let us know when a trend is simply just fluctuating as expected or whether there is statistically significant change," She said. "We want to be good stewards of the public's safety as well as taxpayer dollars and go in and see what we can find and address, so we can turn this trend around."

There's a range of reasons why someone returns to prison. It can include committing a new crime but it can also include violating parole for a more minor circumstance that doesn't involve a conviction.

At an Aug. 5 meeting with the Board of Corrections, records show Corrections Director Jerry Bartruff said higher supervision ratios are needed for offenders who have a high risk of recidivism. He noted the difficulty of providing the level of supervision needed given staffing levels.

Corrections spokesman Fred Scaletta said Bartruff was on vacation and unavailable to comment on his public remarks. Scaletta said he could not comment on behalf of the director.

Recidivism highlights the needs of inmates, said Steve Michael, administrator for the Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning, which is housed under the Iowa Department of Human Rights. He is involved in a pilot program aimed at reducing recidivism rates for youth who leave a state program that addresses delinquency and other residential group facilities.

Michael said both adults and juveniles that "come home" require a range of services to avoid returning to any form of corrections. That can be everything from mental health or substance abuse treatment to creating a pathway for education or a job. It can mean securing a place to live and building social support.

"Those in the justice arena now recognize that this is a key area for offenders to either make it or break it," he said. "If the supports aren't there, there's a large likelihood they won't be successful."

Recent data show Iowa's recidivism rate has declined over the years. It was 44.7 percent in 1990, according to a report by the department. It went from 35.6 percent in the budget year that ended in 2008 to 29.7 percent in the same period in 2014. Then it climbed to 31.9 percent, marking the first year of increase.

Prell emphasized the department's long-term work to reduce the recidivism rate that's noted in the data. Iowa is also one of several states that's received federal grant money in recent years to help further lower its recidivism rate. The corrections department is on schedule to receive $3 million for work that it describes on its website as building "infrastructure, policy, staff training, and sustainability."

The new initiatives that will be a result of the grant are not fully implemented yet, according to Prell. Officials expect that effort to help reduce the rate again.

Former state legislator Wayne Ford, who also is the founder of Urban Dreams, a nonprofit that assists inner-city residents in Des Moines, said officials, community leaders and others must work together to address challenges facing ex-offenders. Ford, who now heads a committee within the Iowa Juvenile Justice Advisory Council that addresses the disproportionality of minorities in confinement in the state, said he's met with several ex-offenders who can't find a job because of their criminal record.

"We have to begin making steps that will ensure that all people can fulfill the American dream," he said. "If not, I don't see no difference in the recidivism rate ... we have to help people rise together."

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