The U.S. has the world's largest prison population, more than two million people behind bars. And a Pew study out Wednesday says it's costing states more than $50 billion a year. About four in 10 offenders end up back behind bars within three years of their release. National correspondent Jim Axelrod looks at what's being done to break a cycle that's both vicious and costly.
NORTH BRUNSWICK, N.J. - The men in green know where they want to be, and it's not in a room in prison.
"I just pray this is the last time I gotta come through these walls," said Gary, an inmate.
Though they may have a lead on some answered prayers
"I believe by me coming into this program," said James, another inmate. "It saved my life."
Watching over 20 inmates at a jail in New Jersey is retired New Jersey judge Barnett Hoffman, who was no softie on crime but who came up with the only licensed drug treatment program in a New Jersey jail.
"It's incredibly expensive to lock someone up," Hoffman said.
In 21 years on the bench, Hoffman sentenced hundreds of criminals to hard time, including handing down three-dozen life sentences. He says being tough on crime is not always smart on crime.
"One size does not fit all," said Hoffman. "Everybody who's in there is coming out, so we have to do something to try to figure out a way they don't go back in after they come out."
Hoffman's goal is to keep non-violent inmates from ever coming back once they've served their time.
"I plan on leaving tomorrow," said convict Kevin. "So I'm really looking forward to applying what I've learned in here out there."
But the Pew study suggests eight of these 20 will return within three years -- after creating more crime and creating more victims.
"The philosophy has been that to kick these guys out the prison gate with nothing more than a bus ticket and the clothes on their back," said Adam Gelb of the Pew Center. "And that just hasn't worked very well for public safety."
While the debate between incarceration and rehabilitation is usually a matter of politics, the great recession has added an element: economics. Treating some criminals some is cheaper than locking them up.
Cutting the number of inmates who return to prison by 10 percent would save states $635 million a year. Drug treatment and general education degree programs -- plus help transitioning back into society -- have cut recidivism rates up to 32 percent in states like Oregon, Kansas and Utah.
"There are less expensive strategies that improve public safety," said Gelb.
No hands are raised when the five inmates are asked if they think they will return to prison.
Hoffman says the recidivism rate for his graduates is 17 percent below the national average.
On Wednesday morning, 57-year-old Kevin Araneo walked out of jail believing he can beat the national odds -- and make the day a one-way trip.