Rethinking pathways to reentry
A recent report by the Sentencing Project documents an encouraging trend. The prison population in the United States has fallen in 39 states, and the total prison population is down 7 percent from its peak in 2009. This is good news for the United States, as an increasing body of research has shown the negative effects that mass incarceration has on individuals, families, and communities, as well as the strain it puts on state budgets and correctional staff at all levels across the country. But a declining prison population necessarily means that thousands of individuals are taking the arduous road back from prison to their communities.
For many, this road ends up looking more like a roundabout than a highway, with more than 80 percent being arrested again less than a decade after release. Much has been tried to reduce recidivism but little has been shown to have significant positive effects. Over the past year, the American Enterprise Institute convened a group of scholars to delve into this problem, bringing together more than two dozen program evaluators, criminologists, and researchers to discuss what works and what does not in helping formerly incarcerated individuals successfully leave prison and reintegrate back into their communities.
Our research report sought to distill some insights into the state of research and practice in reentry with the goal of identifying fresh perspectives for policymakers, researchers, and practitioners working in the field. Many of these ideas will be more fully developed as part of a volume to be published in early 2020. While the working group did not seek to develop a consensus, it did identify several critical areas of focus for advancing the work of the corrections and reentry fields.
First, it is crucial that programs operating within correctional systems and at the community level become more rigorous in their program designs. Correctional systems and reentry programs at the community level need clearly defined theories of change that lay out a strategic conceptual framework, detailed steps for reaching the desired outcomes, and metrics for determining success. In criminal justice and reentry, causality is hard to establish and measure, and such theories would help.
Second, researchers need to focus more time and energy on program implementation. Many correctional institutions and local criminal justice systems are either unequipped or uninformed or both about how to put a particular program model into practice. The result is a mashup of partially implemented programs that bear little resemblance to the models they are based on. This failure to faithfully replicate a given practice calls effectiveness, positive or negative, into question. Implementers need greater support throughout the process, and researchers have to do a better job at soliciting input from frontline practitioners and program participants to strengthen and improve program quality.
The report also highlights the importance of accurately gauging the needs of incarcerated individuals and their criminogenic risk factors. The best research shows that tailored services produce better outcomes than “one size fits all” programs that run the risk of providing individuals either too little or too much help. To effectively align services with individual needs, correctional staff must understand criminogenic risk factors and align services to mitigate them. These assessments might be expensive and time consuming, but the benefits outweigh the costs.
Finally, new research indicates that people may stop committing crimes suddenly rather than desist on a slow age related curve, a model that has governed our criminal justice expectations for decades. There is evidence that even those who seem most likely to recidivate make choices to become crime free, quickly reducing or eliminating the likelihood of rearrest. While there is uncertainty about how to produce this shift, the research suggests that reentry programs should be oriented to support those who have made or are close to making the transition.
All levels of government, along with many private and philanthropic organizations, have invested billions of dollars in trying to solve the recidivism puzzle. To date, the effect has been disappointing. This report and the volume that will be published next year are an effort to plot multiple pathways toward possible solutions. Some of these pathways focus on making existing approaches more effective while others seek to innovate entirely new solutions. The bottom line is that the status quo is neither sufficient nor sustainable. For the sake of the thousands of men and women who return home from prison each week and the families and communities who receive them, we can and must do better.
Brent Orrell is a resident fellow in domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He previously served at the Labor Department during the Bush administration and worked in Congress for more than a decade.