Story Behind the Story: Recidivism

Tangee Cain has been arrested between 30 and 40 times.

"I don't think no more than 40," the 39-year-old Thomas County Jail inmate said.

Cain's current jail stay is for probation violation. She was released from jail in June and returned in August.

She returned to jail in August after not adhering to a 7 p.m. curfew at the personal care home where she was staying.

Recidivism — the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend — is a major problem fueled by drug crimes and probation troubles, officials said.

“We need to help folks, but at some point they need to be punished,” Southern District Attorney Brad Shealy said.

This week, the SunLight Project team of reporters across Georgia takes a look at what causes criminals to head back to jail.

THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM

When Cain was released from jail in June, she said she began smoking crack cocaine again and voluntarily admitted herself to the Crisis Center for Change at Georgia Pines.

Several officials said drug problems are a major contributor to recidivism.

While Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk didn’t have exact figures, he estimated 70 percent of the county jail’s population of about 700 inmates are repeat offenders. A large number of them are in for drug crimes, he said.

“A lot of them are addicts,” the sheriff said. “When they get out of jail, they have no job, and they have to have that drug. They steal or rob to support their habit and get caught.”

About 30-50 percent of the cases going through Lowndes County’s Superior Court involve repeat offenders, Shealy said.

“That goes up when you consider only drug cases,” he said.

Another major source of recidivism is probation violation. Between 85 and 90 percent of the men and women jailed in the Baldwin County Law Enforcement Center today are probationers, Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office Detective Capt. Brad King said.

Many probationers wind up in trouble because of misconceptions, Paulk said.

“Many of them have to pay fines when they’re on probation,” he said. “We can’t arrest someone for not paying a fine, but the probationers often think we can. With no job, they’re afraid to report that they can’t pay” and wind up being hauled back to jail for failure to report, the sheriff said.

“In my experience, we know for a fact that most of these guys don’t have a high school education and once they go to prison, they’ve got a stigma that they’re a convicted felon, and then they don’t have a high school education so their income is very limited. So when they leave, they turn right back to what they were doing before to make money,” Colquitt County Warden Billy Howell said.

The Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office reported 7,272 total arrests from Oct. 1, 2018 to Oct. 1, 2019. It reports 927 arrests in that period in which at least one of the charges was a felony probation violation. In that same period of time, 759 arrests occurred that included at least one misdemeanor probation violation.

In Thomas County, about 61 percent of the jail's 221 inmates are charged with probation violation.

Rodney "Rod" Weaver is a Whitfield County Magistrate Court judge. Weaver previously served for 25 years with the Georgia Department of Corrections as a counselor, probation officer and administrator.

"There are certain factors that contribute to recidivism," he said. "They are as follows substance abuse, the economy (unemployment), mental health issues, negative peer pressure, etc. These are risk factors that impact an individual that contribute to anti-social behavior and often causes persons to act out in anti-social, criminal behavior. Unfortunately, unless these factors are addressed and reconciled criminal behavior often repeats itself."

In Lowndes County, some inmates deliberately commit new crimes just because they need medical care, Sheriff Paulk said.

“Some of these people have never seen a doctor before they reach jail, where we’ll take care of them and feed them,” he said. “All it costs them is their freedom.”

Paulk has also seen some inmates who deliberately re-offend because they are used to the highly structured life of jail or prison and cannot function freely in regular society.

“They want to come back because they feel safe here,” he said.

“We have very few serious mental health inmates,” Howell said of the Colquitt facility. “But we know that we have people locked up who need to have mental health help instead. And that’s a sad thing.”

Mark Mitchell, judge of Thomas County State Court and Thomasville Municipal Court, said substance abuse and mental health issues are the primary reasons for recidivism he sees in his courts. Substances include alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana, he said.

Mitchell sees a lot of alcoholics in the two courts.

"Nobody's going to get clean until they want to," he said.

Tift County Assistant District Attorney J.D. Hart said in her experience, recidivism in Tift County is “extremely high.”

Hart, who has been with the DA’s office since 2013, said her office most often sees re-offenders for non-violent crimes, such as shoplifting, theft and DUIs.

“My guess would be that 85 to 90 percent of felony crimes involve drugs to some extent,” Hart said.

She said re-offenders are often addicts committing crimes to fund a drug habit, because they’re on drugs at the time or as a result of drug deals gone bad.  

Another reason for high recidivism rates is serious felonies, such as murder or child molestation, come with longer sentences for those convicted. Non-violent offenders are more often put on probation, meaning they’re out in the community and have the opportunity to re-offend more often, Hart said.

She said prisons are usually overcrowded and housing inmates costs money.

THE FRUSTRATION

Three days before attacking and robbing a female jogger in an Eatonton subdivision, Anthony Bernard Collins Jr. was released from the Greene County Law Enforcement Center in Greensboro where he’d already stole a car, according to reports. 

Collins was released in July 2018 on his own recognizance before he was turned over to Athens-Clarke County Police on other criminal charges.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said the incident is a never-ending frustration.

“Here this individual is in Putnam County brutally assaulting and robbing one of our citizens where he should have not have been out of jail,” the veteran sheriff said. “It’s just that simple.”

Eatonton Police Chief Kent Lawrence agrees. 

“He (Collins) is a person that should have been in jail with everything that’s on top of him,” Lawrence said. “He has beat the system. But now he is in Eatonton, Ga., where he’s not going to beat the system — period.”

Earlier this month, Collins was sentenced to 30 years — 15 in prison and 15 on probation after his release from confinement. He pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated battery and robbery by force in Putnam County Superior Court for the summer 2018 attack on the jogger. 

In Lowndes County, a large number of recidivists are gang members who must be kept separate from other inmates, Sheriff Paulk said.

“At least four of them are charged with murder,” he said.

On the judicial side, a rise in repeat offender cases during the last decade has increased court workloads, Southern Circuit Court Judge James Tunison said.

First-time offenders often get out of jail, are re-arrested, get probation, then go back to jail on probation violation, setting up a cycle of arrests, DA Shealy said.

Thomas County Sheriff's Office Capt. Ron James, Thomas County Jail administrator, said 96 percent of jail inmates are repeat offenders. Most are charged with offenses involving drugs, burglaries, battery, theft charges and traffic offenses.

Of the jail's 221-inmate population on Oct. 10, 61 percent are charged with probation violation.

Strengthened and streamlined probation procedures reduced Georgia's probation caseload nearly 25 percent in 2017-18, according to the Justice Reinvestment initiative.

FIGHTING THE PROBLEM

The lawmen and jurists contacted by the SunLight team agree breaking the cycle of post-jail unemployment is crucial to stopping repeat offenses.

In Colquitt County, the local prison and the Georgia Department of Corrections are working on general education diploma programs, Howell said.

“We’re finishing up our second year where the Georgia Department of Corrections sets up GED programs and we’ve exceeded our goal,” he said. “We run two GED programs at this prison, and it’s statewide, and we’re seeing a difference."

“Southern Regional Technical College provides the instructors for the GED courses. It’s mandatory if you’re a state inmate. We know that this makes a difference,” Howell said.

The Colquitt prison also offers courses in basic computer skills and work ethics.

“If we can get one of these guys who doesn’t have a GED, has been in and out of the system for most of their life, they have to enroll in the GED course before they can get into the computer skills course,” Howell said. “It puts them in a better chance to make more money and the more he makes, the less he has to rely on being on the streets, getting into trouble. He won’t just be back in with the street folks that got him in trouble in the first place. They teach how to write a resume and role play interviews. It prepares them for that job interview, and if we’ve got that, we’ve got him in the door.”

In several districts, special programs called drug courts or accountability courts are offering an alternative to sending criminals to jail or prison repeatedly. In 2018, there were 156 accountability courts in Georgia, according to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

In Lowndes County, Judge Tunison helped set up the local accountability court.

“Part of a probated sentence includes going to the accountability court,” he said.

The special court offers classes in such things as vehicular drug abuse and involves case workers and drug testing, the judge said.

Evidence-backed treatments, also known as “cognitive behavioral therapy,” is used because it trains participants to change the way they think about criminal activity, thus getting more funding from the government, Tunison said.

At the Lowndes County Jail, inmates can take part in a program that helps them get the jobs they need when they finish their sentence.

The program puts eligible inmates in regular clothes instead of prison jumpers, carries them to local companies participating in the program, and puts them to work, Sheriff Paulk said.

Any fines or child support that inmates owe are taken from their paychecks, and at the end of the work day they are brought back to the jail.

“If they don’t get fired for half of their sentence, then their sentence is cut in half,” the sheriff said. “After they leave jail, they have a job.”

About 30-50 inmates are in the program at any one time. During the first year of the program, the sheriff’s office saved $1 million over the regular cost of housing and feeding inmates, he said.

Inmates wanting in on the work program cannot have committed violent crimes, cannot use a cellphone or tobacco and are charged $10 a day out of their paycheck to cover transportation, Paulk said.

Tift County has a day reporting center and a drug court, both set up to assist offenders with an addiction.

Hart said the drug court has the opportunity to really turn someone’s life around but isn’t able to take many people into the program.

As for the day reporting center, “At some point, you run out of resources and prison is all you have left,” Hart said. 

In the state prison system, recidivism rates for offenders obtaining a GED or vocational certification decreased for a combined total of more than 17% in fiscal year 2015, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections. Rates for offenders enrolled in cognitive and substance abuse treatment programs decreased for a combined total of more than 6% compared to fiscal year 2014. The corrections department attributed the drop to the number of services and programs available to inmates.

Tangee Cain, who attends meetings for help with her drug addiction, said she does not need a job. She receives Social Security disability for schizoaffective bipolar and is eligible for Veterans Administration benefits related to her late father.

"I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired," Cain said. "I'm going to do the right thing."

The SunLight team consists of Patti Dozier, Charles Oliver, Natalie Linder, Riley Bunch, Savannah Donald , Eve Copeland-Brechbiel and Terry Richards.

Terry Richards is senior reporter at The Valdosta Daily Times.

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