As our nation continues to grapple with the far-reaching impacts of COVID-19, jurisdictions throughout the country are releasing more incarcerated people than ever — often hundreds at a time — amid concerns of the spread of the virus in their facilities.
While this mass exodus is welcome news considering the unique dangers presented by infectious diseases in prisons and jails, it is more critical than ever to ensure that supports exist to meet the needs of people reentering society after incarceration. In pursuit of that goal, it’s crucial that we follow the research evidence on best practice in preparing people for successful reintegration into their communities.
What does the research tell us about what works in reentry? The answer is complex. On one hand, for every type of program intervention one could imagine — from work release to family visitation programs and even transcendental meditation — there’s at least one rigorous study finding that the program yielded its intended impact, usually on recidivism reduction. But for each of these positive evaluations, there are dozens upon dozens of others with null, and occasionally, counterintuitive results.
One reason for these uneven findings is that reentry isn’t about just one need or one risk profile. There is no single solution to recidivism because people’s reentry needs are exceedingly complex and frequently intertwined. That means that focusing on one need at the expense of others can yield unintended consequences.
Take, for example, employment. It stands to reason that finding a job, particularly one with a living wage, supports successful reentry. Employment can provide financial independence, help secure stable housing and make criminal activity less of a temptation. But job seekers with substance use disorders need help meeting both of those needs; a job on its own might provide a source of funds to continue using.
Focusing on housing alone presents a similar challenge. Halfway houses are beneficial for many people reentering their communities. But they are not helpful for people at low risk of reoffending, likely because halfway houses separate people who would have done well enough on their own from their family support networks.
Just as focusing on one component of reentry doesn’t work, it is also counterproductive to provide every person exiting prison with the same array of reentry supports. Such a strategy is both ineffective and an imprudent use of public resources. Instead, successful reentry programs need to be both holistic — addressing all the needs of an individual — and tailored — recognizing that people have different needs.
The crafting and delivery of reentry services should also recognize that the hurdles to successful reintegration are composed of both big challenges — such as education, employment, housing and health needs — and smaller, but critical, barriers — such as obtaining a picture ID, securing transportation to reentry services and accessing and paying for child care.
Importantly, reentry services should focus on assets, taking a strengths-based approach that acknowledges and builds upon individual skills, experiences and support systems. Far too often we focus on risks rather than assets — “problematizing people” and overlooking talents and strengths, such as family support, which research has documented is prevalent yet often untapped.
Another key asset in reentry is the community to which people return. Community members likely have the best ideas for how to support successful reintegration. In Colorado, for example, state justice reform efforts included investing in communities that are most impacted by mass incarceration and inviting them to develop solutions, such as hiring the greatest experts — people who’ve successfully reintegrated in society — to support those returning home from prison.
The COVID-19 crisis has brought into stark relief the challenges of reentry and what is required to ensure they are met. Leaders at all levels of government — from members of Congress to governors, mayors and county executives — have a unique opportunity to invest in smart, research-backed support for people reentering communities across the country. To ensure these efforts support both the successful reintegration of individuals as well as the overall safety of the communities to which they return, solutions should be holistic, tailored and community-led.
Nancy La Vigne is vice president for justice policy at the Urban Institute, where she publishes research on prison reentry, policing reform and the evaluation of criminal justice technologies.