Empirically supported reentry: review and prospects.


By The Community Corrections Research Team (1)

The number of individuals being released from U.S. jails and prisons into the community is growing at an unprecedented rate. In 2007, approximately 725,000 offenders returned to the community from prison (West and Sabol, 2008) and approximately 12 million offenders are released to the community from city and county jails (Harrison and Beck, 2006). Given that prison and parole populations are continuing to grow, the number of individuals released from incarceration back into the community is not likely to decrease.

Unfortunately, many individuals released from prison continue to engage in criminal behavior. For example, some research suggests that approximately two-thirds of released inmates are rearrested and 25 percent are reincarcerated for a new offense within three years of release (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2007; Langan and Levin, 2002). In addition, many offenders are apparently ill equipped to meet the demands of society upon release. Substance abuse, limited education and poor job skills are well-documented among inmates, both pre-incarceration and post-release (e.g., Durose and Mumola, 2004; Petersilia, 2000), which likely contributes to the high rate of recidivism.

Given the number of inmates being released from incarceration back into the community, and the high rate of rearrest among these individuals, offender reentry programs have received a good deal of attention in recent years. Reentry can be defined in various ways, but it typically means the process of preparing inmates to transition from incarceration to the community (Mellow et al., 2008). Although reentry has become the focus of increasing attention, there is little empirical research regarding the effectiveness of reentry programs.

Offender Reentry

The impact of reentry services is not limited to an exclusive focus on reducing recidivism. Although reducing recidivism is clearly an important goal, there should be other benefits as well. For example, released inmates account for a large proportion of the population with communicable health problems, including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C (Mellow et al., 2008). Reentry services can assist inmates in obtaining needed health care. Moreover, reductions in recidivism and the provision of appropriate health care lead to significant cost savings, which is an important consideration for local and state governments dealing with crime and its associated costs.

The process of offender reentry may be conceptualized as beginning when an inmate enters a correctional facility and ending when that individual is no longer under any form of correctional supervision in the community. One model of reentry decision-making is based on the U.S. Department of Justice's three-phased reentry approach developed as part of its Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) and the seven decision points identified by the National Institute of Corrections in its Transition from Prison to Community Initiative. This model is currently being used in several states.

These seven decision points are found in the phases of custody, release and community supervision/ discharge. The custody phase involves two decision points: first, assessment and classification, which involves measuring offenders' risks, needs and strengths upon entry to the correctional facility; and second, inmate programming, in which the correctional facility provides tailored interventions designed to reduce risk, address needs and build upon existing strengths. The release phase incorporates the next two decision points: inmate release preparation, which involves developing a parole plan to address supervision, housing, employment, drug testing and other considerations; and release decisionmaking, which is designed to determine the appropriateness of parole on a case-by-case basis. The community supervision/discharge phase involves the final three decision points: 1) supervision and services; 2) revocation decision-making, involving the use of graduated sanctions in response to infractions; and 3) discharge and aftercare, which is when community supervision is terminated and the inmate is no longer under correctional supervision.

Release Decision-Making: Prison to Community

Parole boards had wide latitude in deciding whether to release offenders under discretionary parole prior to 1980. Parole was granted in light of considerations such as rehabilitation, family support and employment. Beginning in the early 1980s, however, the impact of retribution and deterrence began to outweigh such rehabilitative considerations. The use of determinant sentencing, including fixed sentences and automatic release, further limited the individualized decision-making capacities of parole boards. The contemporary correctional decision to release an offender from prison or jail and return that individual to the community is the first of several that may be informed by empirical evidence regarding that individual's readiness for reentry.

Approximately 200 state parole officials are responsible for deciding the timing and release conditions for more than 120,000 offenders eligible for parole each year (Hughes, Wilson and Beck, 2001). These officials are also responsible for determining the conditions of release for about 280,000 people discharged on mandatory parole and conditional release, and for returning more than 220,000 individuals to incarceration on the basis of parole revocation (Harrison and Beck, 2005). The proportion of offenders released unconditionally at the end of their sentence has been estimated at 20 percent (Petersilia, 2001). The remaining individuals are released under conditions involving assignment to parole officers, who are responsible for ensuring that the parolee complies with the terms of release, including housing, financial support and illegal drug abstinence. About 400,000 of the 600,000 offenders who are released on parole annually are rearrested within three years (Petersilia, 2001). The process of "structured reentry" (Byrne and Taxman, 2004) has both prison and community components, with the expectation that greater structure, more intensive monitoring and more individualized rehabilitation strategies will reduce this recidivism rate.

The community classification center is part of this trend toward greater structure in reentry. Historically, those released from prison have been largely responsible for their own aftercare; employment, housing, family and treatment needs were organized by the offender while still in prison or upon release (Taxman, 2004). The more recent emphasis on evidence-based practice in reentry, however, has prompted a shift in correctional programming and the community reentry process (Center for Effective Public Policy, 2007). Community-based classification centers and specialized programs can play an important part in both structured reentry planning (Wilkinson, 2001) and the delivery of targeted services that are particularly appropriate for that individual. Programs that target specific offender needs have been associated with lower recidivism rates (Seiter and Kadela, 2003).

Newer practice models, such as the five-step offender active participant model (Taxman, 2004), civic engagement intervention model (Bazemore and Stinchcomb, 2004) and critical time intervention (Draine and Herman, 2007), involve a different...

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