The number of people in North Carolina returning to prison after their release is on the decline. In fact, a new report released just this month shows that North Carolina has had one of the biggest drops in recidivism in the country.
In 2008, then-President George W. Bush passed the Second Chance Act. The idea was to provide federal resources to states to address the needs of people leaving prison. North Carolina was one of the states to benefit from the funding, but after the federal grants went away, the state struggled.
Bill Rowe is the general counsel and director of advocacy for the North Carolina Justice Center. He says that many of the most powerful changes in the correctional system did not come from the federal effort, but from a state one. In 2011, the state passed the Justice Reinvestment Act.
"That was a positive development," Rowe says.
It was a bipartisan effort. The act didn't just fund more services right away, rather the idea was to take a deep-dive look at the data to see why the prison population was growing. And what the researchers came up with was not something that anyone had predicted.
"Basically 50 percent of the prison admissions ... was for people violating their probation," Rowe says. A huge percentage of the ex-offenders weren't returning to prison because they had done something else, like rob a store, rather they were coming back because they had violated a term of their probation.
"So then I think a light bulb went off for everyone," Rowe says. People started to think, "'Maybe those people don't need to go back to prison and there are other ways they ought to be dealt with.'"
Soon probation officers were given more tools to deal with probation violations. Re-entry councils were formed. These councils bring together people and resources to support someone with a criminal history as they try to re-start their lives.
"Over the last three or four years we in North Carolina have closed nine correctional facilities ... that's 10,000 less people going back to prison. So ... what the state legislature did had profound effect," Rowe says.