We have all certainly heard and read a great deal about offender reentry. So what have we learned? First, the reality is that more than 95 percent of prison inmates will at some point return to the community. More than half of these released offenders will fail in making a successful transition back to the community and will return to jail or prison. Second, the concept that simply placing an offender in prison will deter future criminal behavior does not work. If it were only that simple. However, what we have learned from years of practice and the results of hundreds of studies, is that reducing recidivism is a very complex task that requires serious work on multiple fronts.
The first front is one that I think we are just beginning to tackle: we need to rethink who really belongs in prison. We need to be thoughtful about what we are trying to accomplish by placing an offender in prison and how long it will take to do it.
Once we know which offenders are deserving of imprisonment, we need to figure out what we can do while we have their attention to help them succeed. Here is where the research on effective intervention is very clear; it almost provides a roadmap. The first thing that should happen when an offender is sent to prison is that facility staff should thoroughly assess the offender's risk to the community, particular criminogenic factors, and the responsivity factors that will help determine how best to address that offender's needs.
For years, most states have offered programming to the inmate population. Sometimes this programming properly targets the factors that research tells us contribute to criminality such as poor self-control, low levels of educational and vocational achievement, antisocial attitudes and values, and chronic drug abuse. But other times, people in the corrections field waste our very limited resources by making "treatment" available that does no good at all and, in fact, may make some offenders worse. An example of this is the still pervasive "scared straight" types of programs. We must have the will to put an end to feel-good and/or publicly popular programs...