Developing successful reentry programs: lessons learned from the 'what works' research.

Author:Lowenkamp, Christopher T.
Position::CT FEATURE

For the past several years, almost 600,000 offenders per year have returned to the community from prison (Petersilia, 2000). While prison growth has recently slowed, prison and parole populations continue to grow (Glazer and Palla, 2004). When reviewing the number of offenders incarcerated or under some other form of correctional control, it is alarmingly clear that the return of inmates to the community is not likely to abate in the near (or distant) future.


While offenders, in some instances, are offered some programming while incarcerated, a good percentage of offenders are returned to the community ill-equipped for reintegration (Petersilia, 2000). For example, of nonviolent offenders returning to the community from prison, 40 percent have less than a high school education, nearly 66 percent indicated they had been using drugs during the month prior to their offense, 25 percent were dependent on alcohol prior to entering prison (Durose and Mumola, 2004) and unemployment is fairly high among this population (petersilia, 2000). The social costs of inmates returning to the nation's communities are evident, and these social costs are above and beyond those associated with continued criminal behavior. (1) Given these numbers and the community concerns associated with offender reentry, it is no wonder why federal, state and local governments have recently been so attentive to this process. One way to facilitate successful offender re-integration is through reentry programming.

Reentry programs are promising for a number of reasons. First, they provide an opportunity to shape offender behavior while transitioning back to their natural environments, thereby reducing recidivism rates. They also offer the ability to proactively deal with violations of post-release supervision and reduce prison populations--as violators are making up greater percentages of the prison population now than in the past (Cohen, 1995; Travis, 2000). Additionally, such programs can facilitate a successful reentry that, in addition to reducing recidivism, can lead to better and more functional lives for former inmates, their families and communities.

All of this optimism and potential must, however, be tempered with corrections' penchant to do the wrong thing (Gendreau, Goggin and Smith, 1999; Latessa, Cullen and Gendreau, 2003). In spite of sound empirical evidence to the contrary, correctional agencies continue to spend good money on the latest and greatest programming and assessment techniques (and the not-so-latest or greatest correctional interventions) in hopes that these novel attempts at correctional interventions will solve all of corrections' problems (panaceaphilia revisited).

The purpose of this article is not to rehash failed and botched attempts at implementing correctional programming. Rather, it brings to bear the research on some residential programs that served offenders during reentry, and should shape, to some degree, the development of reentry programs. The question "How should we design a good reentry program?" has already been answered. The components of an effective correctional intervention, including offender reentry programs, have already been enumerated a number of times (Gendreau and Andrews, 1990; Gendreau, 1996; Gendreau and Goggin, 1996; Andrews and Bonta, 1998; Gendreau and Goggin, 2000; Gendreau, French and Taylor, 2002). And while it is recognized that there may be special issues specific to reentry programs, the core of these programs should follow the basic tenets of effective correctional interventions.

The research discussed in this article, covering 38 residential programs that served parolees and offenders on post-release control in Ohio, can serve as a blueprint in the development or redesign of reentry programs. While the empirical research is limited to programs in Ohio, the results reported here are consistent with research findings from studies conducted during different time periods, in different jurisdictions, in different countries, with male and female offenders, and with adult and juvenile offenders. The amount of evidence on what constitutes an effective correctional intervention is massive. This body of literature is so large and consistent that if operating or designing a reentry program, heed this warning: If the program does not embody a number of the characteristics discussed below, whether residential or not, the likelihood that the program will succeed in reducing recidivism is low. While reading through this article and the research findings, assess how well the program performs in these areas.

Prior to discussing the characteristics of effective correctional programs, and thereby the characteristics of effective reentry programs (and these characteristics should start to look familiar), the concept of...

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