SALT LAKE CITY -- More than 50 percent of Utah ex-convicts commit crimes within three years of their release and end up back in jail, but the most recent figures are down compared data from the late 1990s, according to a report released Wednesday.
From 1999 to 2002, 65.8 percent of prisoners ended up back behind bars at some point, but the numbers dropped from 2004 to 2007, to 53.7 percent, according to the report by the Pew Center on the States.
Jean Nielsen, director of Salt Lake County's Department of Human Services, credits Utah's improvement over the years to an increase in substance abuse programs and resources that help the mentally ill.
"Instead of putting the mentally ill in jail, we have teams of social workers and psychiatrists that help them," Nielsen said. "With education, training, substance abuse programs, various treatment, housing options, and counseling, we want to ensure they have a smooth transition back into society and don't go back to jail."
Utah's recidivism rate remains above the national average of 43 percent. The Pew Center study showed only marginal improvement in the nation's recidivism rate even as spending on corrections departments increased to about $52 billion annually from around $30 billion a decade ago.
"Despite an enormous escalation in spending, the overall recidivism rates have not budged," said Adam Gelb of the center's Public Safety Performance Project. "A lot of the funding is being put into the wrong places. We know much more than 30 years ago and there are other options such as research-based strategies for non-violent offenders that are more effective."
About 43 percent of prisoners in the U.S. who were released in 2004 were sent back to prison by 2007, either for a new crime or for violating the conditions of their release, the study found. That number was down from 45 percent during a similar period beginning in 1999.
One of Utah's biggest challenges, according to Steve Gehrke, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Corrections, is funding for new programs that would lower the recidivism rates.
Nielsen said those include substance abuse treatments, which have about a five-month waiting list.
"Our biggest cry is for more substance abuse treatment resources," Nielsen said. "Some of these people are recommended for treatment, but we just don't have the resources to support their needs, so they end up back in jail."
Gehrke said the department now assesses inmates upon their arrival and prepares them for their exit from the day they enter custody with a variety of programs, such as therapy and vocational training.
Wyoming and Oregon had the lowest overall recidivism rates for offenders released in 2004, with rates hovering below 25 percent. Minnesota had the highest -- more than 61 percent -- while Alaska, California, Illinois, Missouri, Utah and Vermont topped 50 percent.