Recidivism among participants of a reentry program for prisoners released without supervision.

Author:Wikoff, Nora

As higher numbers of individuals are released from prison and rejoin society, reentry programs can help former offenders reintegrate into society without continuing to engage in crime. This quasi-experimental study examined whether participation in reentry programming was associated with reduced recidivism among offenders who were no longer under criminal justice supervision. Offenders who completed their sentences in prison were invited to participate in Project Re-Connect (PRC), a six-month, voluntary prisoner reentry program. Following participants' release from prison, PRC provided case management and direct monetary support to participants for up to six months. Survival analysis was used to compare recidivism rates between 122 PRC participants and 158 eligible non-participants. Cox regression coefficients indicated that program participation and having a high school diploma or its equivalent were associated with reduced likelihood of new convictions, whereas substance abuse was associated with higher risk of subsequent convictions. The implications for social work policy and practice are discussed.

KEY WORDS: case management; former offenders; prisoner reentry; program evaluation


The U.S. prison population has grown exponentially over the past 30 years, at great cost to taxpayers and offenders alike. Between 1980 and 2008, the prison population expanded by 475%, reaching 1,518,559 in 2008 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2010). Policy changes fueled this rapid growth, as many states adopted mandatory and determinant sentencing guidelines that resulted in more individuals serving longer prison terms. Meanwhile, stricter parole requirements returned mote ex-offenders to prison on technical parole violations (Seiter & Kadela, 2003; Zhang, Roberts, & Callanan, 2006). Parole violators who complete their sentences in prison are no longer subject to supervision once released from prison, thereby restricting society's ability to monitor and assist these individuals during reentry (Braga, Piehl, & Hureau, 2009; O'Brien, 2009; Seiter & Kadela, 2003).

The number and the rate of inmates released without parole supervision have increased even over the last decade, as the number of unsupervised releases grew from 118,886 in 2000 (20.4% of all released) to 165,568 in 2008 (24.2% of all releases) (Sabol, West, & Cooper, 2009; Seiter & Kadela, 2003). Former offenders commit crimes at higher rates than the general population, so in combination with technical parole violations, many ex-offenders recidivate and return to prison within the first few years of release (Brad et al., 2009). As of 1994, more than two-thirds of state prisoners were rearrested for one or more serious crimes within three years of release. Almost half of those released returned to prison during that time frame for parole violations or new convictions (Langan & Levin, 2002).

Prisoner reentry has become a critical topic as communities prepare to absorb increasing numbers of returning former offenders; 683,106 inmates were released from state or federal prisons in 2008, an increase of nearly 20% over the number released in 2000 (Petersilia, 2003; Roman & Travis, 2006; Sabol et al., 2009; Seiter & Kadda, 2003; Wilson & Davis, 2006). Reentry programs have been developed nationwide to address offender needs and smooth the transition from prison into the community.


Several risk factors increase the likelihood that ex-offenders will return to prison on new charges. These risk factors include age, gender, race, gang membership, substance abuse, antisocial behavior, low social achievement, negative peers, length of prior criminal history, and the number of years incarcerated before release (Braga et al., 2009; Gendreau, Little, & Goggin, 1996; Huebner, Varano, & Bynum, 2007; Langan & Levin, 2002; Listwan, 2009; O'Brien, 2009; Seiter & Kadela, 2003; Wheeler & Patterson, 2008; Wilson & Davis, 2006; Yahner & Visher, 2008). Economic difficulties also compromise offenders' abilities to reintegrate into society successfully. For example, without access to necessities--such as food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and personal identification--former inmates may see no other option than to return to illegal activities to meet their needs (La Vigne, Davies, Palmer, & Halberstadt, 2008). In addition, ex-offenders often lack sufficient human and social capital to help them navigate life outside of prison (Wilson & Davis, 2006). Many lack a high school diploma or employable skills, and others straggle with mental health or substance abuse problems (Lewis, Garfinkel, & Gao, 2007). Likewise, many offenders in the community experience feelings of depression and disruption when transitioning from prison life to life outside of prison, and these feelings may contribute to high rates of recidivism, especially among repeat offenders (Arrigo & Takahashi, 2008; Petersilia, 2003).

To add to these challenges, former inmates generally return to urban communities with concentrated social, economic, and political stressors such as high unemployment, active drug markets, limited social services, high crime, endangered public health, and homelessness (Braga et al., 2009; Katel, 2009; O'Brien, 2009; Seiter & Kadela, 2003; Zhang et al., 2006). Braga et al. (2009) identified several community-level factors that affect successful transitions, including the availability of housing, substance abuse treatment, behavioral and physical health services, and access to education and employment opportunities. Ex-offenders also face legal barriers to receiving public services, such as bans on public assistance receipt, public housing restrictions and limited transitional housing options, and difficulty obtaining state-issued identification (Wheeler & Patterson, 2008). Finally, ex-offenders experience stigma from family, friends, prospective employers, and others because of their criminal backgrounds (Wilson & Davis, 2006).


Compounding the reentry challenges that many ex-offenders face, most do not receive assistance--either pre- or postrelease--to prepare them for returning to the community. Although most offenders have minimal education or job skills, just one-third of all prisoners released receive vocational or educational training while in prison. Three-quarters of all inmates abuse substances, but only one-fourth participate in substance-abuse programming while incarcerated (O'Brien, 2009; Petersilia, 2003). Given the associations between low educational attainment and crime and between substance abuse and crime, the lack of programming in prison means that most offenders leaving prison are likely to recidivate quickly upon release.

Most correctional departments and community organizations now recognize that addressing ex-offender needs may reduce recidivism, leading organizations across the United States to develop prisoner reentry programs. The Second Chance Act of 2007 (P.L. 110-199) provides additional incentives for correctional agencies and community-based organizations to develop prisoner reentry programs. Signed into law on April 9, 2008, the Second Chance Act authorized federal grants to government agencies and nonprofit organizations to provide employment assistance, substance abuse treatment, housing, family programming, mentoring, and other services to help reduce recidivism.

Most programs exist at the community level to serve a specific clientele within the criminal justice system, so no simple definition exists to describe the full range of prisoner reentry programming (Petersilia, 2004; Wilson & Davis, 2006). For example, Petersilia (2004) and Wheeler and Patterson (2008) argued that reentry includes all activities and programming that prepare ex-convicts to return safely to the community as law-abiding citizens. Seiter and Kadela (2003) defined reentry more narrowly to include only programs that specifically focus on the transition from prison to community or that initiate treatment in a prison setting and link with a community program to provide continuity of care.


Reentry programs differ considerably in structure, services provided, and clients served, though most begin working with offenders before they are released (Katel, 2009; Wheeler & Patterson, 2008; Wilson & Davis, 2006). Community-based, prison-based, and parole-based programs exist, as do programs that combine prison, parole, and community services. In this way, even those released from jail or prison without parole supervision can receive services. Some programs assist participants with one specific need, such as employment, housing, or substance abuse education, whereas other programs offer multiple services to meet participants' self-identified needs. Program length also varies widely, extending from weekend-long skills classes to intensive case management over several years (Wheeler & Patterson, 2008; Wilson & Davis, 2006).

Although variety complicates comparisons across programs (Petersilia, 2004), evaluations have shown mostly positive outcomes. Successful programs incorporate intensive...

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