'Step down' programs: the missing link in successful inmate reentry.

Author:Fretz, Ralph

The sheer volume of inmates being released from federal, state and county prisons is now being recognized as a public safety issue. For example, more than 600,000 state offenders were released in 2002. (1) A significant minority of offenders reentering their communities are parole violators who have been involved in the prison-parole-prison cycle. (2) Released inmates face significant obstacles to successful reentry, including housing problems, lack of education, serious medical conditions, mental illness and no marketable employment skills, states Joan Petersilia in her Journal of Community Corrections article "Meeting the Challenge of Prisoner Reentry."


Research indicates that evidenced-based assessment and treatment models reduce recidivism, particularly in high-risk offenders. (3) A critical component of an effective reentry model is a seamless continuum of care with information about the offender's progress being transmitted through each stage of reentry. Within the reentry continuum-of-care process, transitional or "step-down" programming in a secure setting plays a critical role. Community Education Centers (CEC), which partners with departments of corrections, parole departments and universities, has designed a reentry continuum-of-care model that incorporates step-down or transitional programming in a secure setting. The following is a description of a continuum-of-care model that includes a step-down process for offenders before they reenter their respective communities. Outcome research by Fretz and colleagues (4) has indicated that this model is effective in reducing recidivism in a high-risk offender population.

Reentry Issues

The current research on recidivism indicates that more than two-thirds of released offenders will be rearrested within three years of their release, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports. Almost two-thirds of the recidivists were rearrested within the first year post-incarceration. A significant portion (26.4 percent) of the offenders in the BJS study were returned to prison within three years for violations of community supervision. The "supervision failures" have significant treatment needs as they have recently failed while in the community.

Only 7 percent of the offenders are Involved with transitional facilities and community release programs prior to their release into the community, Petersilia reported. The offenders involved in transitional services have usually attained a minimum-custody risk level in the prison system. Therefore, inmates who are at the highest risk for re-offending often do not receive treatment prior to their release from custody. A significant portion of the highest risk offenders do not enter a parole supervision program; instead, they are released into their communities after their sentence has been served with no aftercare supervision or treatment.

Characteristics of Released Offenders

A snapshot of offenders expected to be released in 1999 included the following alarming statistics from BJS: 83.9 percent were involved with drugs or alcohol at the time of the offense, 24.9 percent were alcohol dependent, 24.8 percent had used drugs intravenously and 20.9 percent committed the offense for money for drugs. In terms of criminal history, 56 percent of the released offenders had one or more prior incarcerations with 25 percent having had three or more prior incarcerations, 54 percent were on community supervision (parole or probation) at the time of the arrest and 33 percent had been convicted of a violent offense. In terms of other needs, 14.3 percent of the released offenders were categorized as mentally ill and 11.6 percent were homeless at the time of arrest.

Case Example of A Reentry Offender

Thus far, this article has described offender reentry from a global or macro-level. Yet, the corrections professional is faced with the task of ameliorating reentry obstacles at a micro- or "ground floor" level. The following excerpt from an initial interview with an offender occurs all too often:

Counselor: Mr. Jones, you're getting out soon. What are your plans?

Jones: I don't know. I'm gonna live with my mom. She works at a hospital. She said she can get me a job.

Counselor: What if the job doesn't happen?

Jones: I don't know. I always wanted to own a club.

Counselor: How would you get the money to own a club?

Jones (in an annoyed tone): I don't know. But I'm gonna be real with you: I'm from the streets--point blank--I'm gonna do what I gotta do to make money.

Counselor: What do you mean?

Jones: I don't know. You know, I'll get work or something.

Since the age of 16, Jones has been arrested 33 times with 16 convictions and two state incarcerations. The exchange above highlights the challenges and obstacles faced by reentering offenders and the surrounding system. Similar to many reentering offenders, Jones has a meager plan for post-incarceration employment. When asked if he has a secondary employment plan, Jones responds, with a sense of grandiosity, that he was considering opening a nightclub. When pressed by the counselor about this plan, Jones became annoyed and responded to the counselor's inquiry with a criminogenic response, suggesting that he was going to return to drug sales or some other illegal activity if he needed money. Jones then caught himself and responded with a vague answer to the counselor's question.

Jones' vague response may reflect a form of resistance, but also his lack of a realistic plan of action for his aftercare. Similar to many reentering offenders who are...

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