: Richard P. Seiter and Karen R. Kadela, “Prisoner Reentry: What Works, What Does Not, and What Is Promising, ”Crime & Delinquency, vol. 49, no. 3, 2003, pp. 360-388; hereinafter “Prisoner Reentry: What Works.” (20) Questioning the Evidence, 4-5. (21) Questioning the Evidence, p. 5. (22) Prisoner Reentry: What Works, p. 370. (23) Meta-analyses are a type of systematic review of studies that allow researchers to draw conclusions across a wide range of studies by using statistical methods to derive quantitative results from the analysis of multiple sources of quantitative evidence. (24) Lawrence W. Sherman, Denise Gottfredson, Doris MacKenzie, John Eck, Peter Reuter, and Shawn Bushway, Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising, National Institute of Justice, 1997. (25) Prisoner Reentry: What Works. (26) Prisoner Reentry: What Works, pp. 370-373. (27) The Council of State Governments, Justice Center, National Reentry Resource Center,
The conventional wisdom is that post-release employment is one of the most important elements for an ex-offender to successfully transition back into the community. (28) Released prisoners frequently identify employment as one of the most important factors in their efforts to stay crime-free after incarceration. While studies have shown that employment can aid in preventing recidivism, in general, researchon the relationship between participation in employment programs and recidivism has yielded mixed results. The Clearinghouse included five studies that examined the effects of programs that provided job training and/or post-release employment services for prisoners. Of these five studies, only two found that the program helped reduce recidivism, though neither program had a significant effect on post-release employment. Another program had a positive effect on helping released prisoners find post-incarceration employment, though this program did not have an effect on recidivism. Research on the effect of work release programs was mixed; half of the six studies in the Clearinghouse found that work release program either reduced recidivism or helped prisoners find post-release employment while the other half did not. A majority of the research found that prisoners who participated in prison industries had lower levels of recidivism.
For many prisoners who recently returned to their communities, substance abuse is often closely related to their difficulties with housing, employment, and mental health. (29) Generally, research in the Clearinghouse indicates that substance abuse treatment can help reduce recidivism and substance abuse amongst program participants, especially if the substance abuse treatment is provided in a therapeutic community (TC) setting. (30) There were 16 studies in the Clearinghouse that evaluated the effectiveness of TC substance abuse treatment, and most indicated that program participation had a positive effect on both recidivism and substance abuse. Research also suggests that aftercare can help promote positive outcomes for program participants, but these results could have been affected by selection bias. A majority of studies that evaluated non-TC substance abuse programs found either strong to moderate evidence that the programs reduced recidivism.
Educational credentials are increasingly important in order to obtain employment in a more competitive global economy. However, many prisoners have low levels of educational attainment. To help prepare prisoners for the workforce after they leave prison, many correctional facilities offer educational programs, including adult basic education (ABE), high school or GED programs, college or post-secondary programs, and vocational training. (31) Research included in the Clearinghouse show that post-secondary education had a strong effect on reducing recidivism, while there was a more modest effect for ABE programs. Studies of GED programs show that participants were no less likely to recidivate than non-participants. However, it is difficult to draw any definitive conclusions about the effectiveness of any of these programs because there were a limited number of studies that met the criteria for inclusion. (32) There was more research on vocational education programs, but the findings from these studies were mixed. The research on vocational education programs suggests that the quality of the program may be an important factor in achieving reductions in recidivism.
A significant number of prisoners have problems with mental illness, and these problems might co-occur with a substance abuse or a physical health problem. (33) Research on the effectiveness of prison-based mental health treatment suggests that these programs can help reduce recidivism. The Clearinghouse includes four studies that evaluated programs that offered a continuity of care approach, and all four found significant reductions in recidivism amongst participants. (34) Evaluations of three other programs that focus on cognition and mental well-being, but which are not focused on prisoners with a diagnosed mental illness, suggest that these “curriculum-based” treatment programs can help reduce recidivism. For example, a program that provided 70 weeks of classes (including a phase that incorporates a cognitive-behavioral approach) that focused on problem solving, goal setting, managing stress and fear, and improving cognitive skills, was found to have a positive effect on recidivism.
Acquiring housing is a challenge that most individuals face soon after leaving prison. Obtaining housing is complicated by several factors, including the scarcity of affordable and available housing, legal barriers, discrimination against ex-offenders, and strict eligibility requirements for federally subsidized housing. (35) Like many other reentry programs, the research on the effect of halfway houses on recidivism is mixed. There were three studies in the Clearinghouse that evaluated the effectiveness of halfway housing programs. Two of the studies found that the programs had no effect on recidivism. However, the most methodologically rigorous of the three studies suggests that halfway houses can reduce recidivism. The effect of halfway housing programs on recidivism appears to be largely determined by a participant’s level of risk to recidivate (participants that are at a higher level of risk to recidivate are more likely to benefit)and by the quality of the particular program.
28) The Council of State Governments, Justice Center, National Reentry Resource Center, What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse: Employment, http://whatworks.csgjusticecenter.org/focus_areas/employment-topic
. (29) The Council of State Governments, Justice Center, National Reentry Resource Center, What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse: Substance Abuse , http://whatworks.csgjusticecenter.org/focus_areas/substance-abuse
. (30) Therapeutic communities offer an environment in which participants receive treatment and other services in a housing area separated from the rest of the incarcerated population. (31) The Council of State Governments, Justice Center, National Reentry Resource Center, What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse: Education, http://whatworks.csgjusticecenter.org/focus_areas/education
. (32) There was one study that evaluated an ABE program, two that evaluated GED programs, and another two the evaluated post-secondary education programs. (33) The Council of State Governments, Justice Center, National Reentry Resource Center, What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse: Mental Health, http://whatworks.csgjusticecenter.org/focus_areas/mental-health
. (34) Generally speaking, programs that use a continuity of care approach provide intensive case management while the prisoner is incarcerated, refer him or her to outside service providers prior to release, and continue to offer post-release case management and other services in the community. (35) The Council of State Governments, Justice Center, National Reentry Resource Center, What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse: Housing
. (36) Ibid (37) Questioning the Evidence, pp. 6-7. (37) The research on recidivism suggests that ex-offenders might be best served engaging in reentry services during their first year after release since that is when they are the most likely to recidivate.
Limitations of the “What Works” Literature
A review of the research in the Clearinghouse shows that there is a dearth of high-quality research on the effectiveness of many reentry programs. While there were 16 studies on the effectiveness of TC-based substance abuse treatment that were methodologically rigorous enough to be included in the Clearinghouse, there was only one study of an ABE program, two studies of GED programs, and three studies of halfway houses. The lack of a robust body of literature on the effectiveness of some reentry programs can make it difficult to determine whether a program is indeed effective. It is important to note here that just because a program has been reported to work in one location, or for a certain population, does not necessarily mean that it can be just as effective in other locations or among other populations. A number of factors can impinge on a program’s effectiveness in any given location. For example, while knowing that a program has worked in the past can provide a model or blueprint to guide policy practitioners in other locations, how a program is implemented is just as important to its ultimate success as the underlying model that it is based on. The most effective model program can be compromised if it is not implemented properly. In addition, geographic, demographic, and other differences between locations can affect whether a program that succeeded in one place succeeds in another. Nevertheless, knowing that a program has worked in the past is of use to policy makers as they consider where to allocate funding and other resources.
After reviewing the available literature, some patterns appear to emerge. Many of the programs that have been proven to be effective share some of the same attributes, regardless of whether they focus on vocational training, substance abuse prevention, mental health services, or obtaining housing. The attributes shared by most of these programs include the following:
• they start during institutional placement,but take place mostly in the community;
• they are intensive in nature, lasting typically at least six months;
• they focus services on individuals determined to be at high risk of recidivating through the use of risk-assessment classifications; and
• if they are treatment programs, they use cognitive-behavioral treatment techniques, matching particular therapists and programs to the specific learning characteristics of the offenders.
Over the past two and a half decades, the prison population and the number of ex-offenders being released into the community have been increasing. The increasing number of ex-offendersentering the community has put pressure on public policy makers to provide treatments and services that will smooth the reintegration process while reducing recidivism. When deciding what programs to fund, policy makers often focus on reducing recidivism. The focus on reducing recidivism, however, is complicated by the fact that there are different definitions of recidivism. For example, the most recent major national-levelstudy showed that within five years of their release three-quarters of ex-offenders came into contact with the legal system and about half were back in prison for either a new conviction or a violation of the terms of their release. However, only a quarter of the ex-offenders ended up in prison for having committed new crimes. Whether technical violations should be considered a measure of recidivism or whether recidivism should be confined to the commission of new crimes has engendered much debate within the criminal justice field. While the emphasis on reducing recidivism is important, programs can also be evaluated based on other outcome measures such as their ability to connect ex-offenders with jobs, services, and institutions in their communities.
The best available research has shown that there are a number of services that can help ex-offenders reconnect with their communities and lower recidivism, including programs focusing on providing vocational training, substance abuse prevention, mental health services, and housing. The reportedly most successful programs focus on high-risk offenders, are intensive in nature, begin during institutional placement, and take place mostly in the community. However, a relative lack of scientifically rigorous research has made it difficult to draw definitive conclusions about which programs are most effective. As Congress considers this issue, a number of policy issues may be assessed, including whether the current federal grant programs are adequate or whether new programs should be created, whether there is a need for more regular national-level recidivism data (there were almost 20 years between the BJS’s two reports on recidivism), whether enough coordination of the many programs that may be used to help ex-offenders is occurring within the federal government, whether more evaluations of offender reentry programs are needed, and whether funding will be appropriated for the programs and activities that were authorized by the Second Chance Act.