John and Tom are both ex-offenders released from prison on the same day in separate parts of the country – two of the more than 1,800 offenders each day or nearly 700,000 each year. Both have access to reintegration programs, which help them through the transition by aiding with job training, housing, and access to community resources. John successfully finds a job with the help of his program. Three years later, he’s adjusted well and hasn’t returned to prison.
Tom, on the other hand, is much less successful. He leaves his transitional job and six months after his release, he returns to jail, a victim of the depressing statistics, which include a 50 percent recidivism rate for former offenders in the United States.
So what makes John and Tom’s stories so different? Let’s find out.
Until recently, there was a severely limited understanding as to why criminal rehabilitation programs varied widely in their outcomes. In other words, there was little interest in or understanding of why John succeeded and Tom did not.
However, with the advent of the Second Chance Act in 2007, which provides federal grants for programs and services that aim to reduce recidivism and improve offender outcomes, there has been an increasing interest in understanding what makes reentry programs successful. Furthermore, the high cost of incarceration, which is estimated around $31,000 per person per year, has inspired some states to look closely at why their programs have historically had such low success rates and how they can improve those numbers.
In our work with organizations like the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, we’ve identified four elements which can help state agencies and partner organizations utilize resources more effectively and focus on creating reentry programs for inmates with the best possible outcomes.
Read on to find out how you can ensure your prison population follows in John’s footsteps through successful, evidence based release programs.
Four Key Elements to Successful Reentry Programs for Inmates
1. Start early
Until recently, the focus of organizations and government agencies has been predominantly on release programs, while ignoring the significance of pre-release programs. But as the Federal Bureau of Prisons philosophy states, "release preparation begins the first day of incarceration, [and] focus on release preparation intensifies at least 18 months prior to release."
As you’ll see, successful reentry programs for inmates rely on more than just helping ex-offenders find jobs; it also requires helping offenders change their attitudes and beliefs about crime, addressing mental health issues, providing mentoring, offering educational opportunities and job training, and connecting them with community resources. Most, if not all, of these things can and should begin long before a person’s release date.
2. Clients, not offenders
When government agencies and social service organizations just see "offenders", they often serve up a one-size fits all approach that ends up fitting no one. However, in a comprehensive report released by the Council for State Governments Justice Center, Integrated Reentry and Employment Strategies, they make a strong case that employment programs need to move beyond traditional services. Instead, they recommend addressing individuals’ underlying attitudes about crime and work, making them more likely to succeed at getting and keeping jobs and less likely to reoffend. Not all offenders share the same risk levels or needs, and learning how to accurately assess these attributes and deliver customized help is an important element to truly helping people get out of the criminal justice system.
Programs like Operation New Hope’s Ready4Work, which has been recognized by 3 successive presidents, succeed by recognizing these people as people and individuals first and by creating programs that address their diverse needs.
3. Reassess frameworks
According to MDRC, an organization committed to learning what works to help improve the lives of low-income people, "There is a growing consensus that reentry strategies should build on a framework known as Risk-Needs-Responsivity (RNR)." The framework helps organizations assess individuals’ risk levels for recidivism and provide appropriate levels of response.
Along the same lines, models like Hawaii’s Opportunity for Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) aim to change how we look at probation and post-incarceration monitoring. Since more than half of recidivism is a result of technical violations of parole, this is an important part of the reentry process to examine. By trying new methods, tracking efforts and outcomes, and holding organizations accountable, we can move towards a system of reentry programs for inmates that serve their function while minimizing negative side effects.
4. An insistence on evidence
I’m sure you knew it was coming, but it may surprise you to learn that previously there was very little evidence available to help determine what makes prisoner reintegration programs successful. Most organizations and government agencies were flying blind. To quote our white paper, It Takes A Village, "given the significant dollars issued in every state to community-based partners to execute specialty services for vulnerable populations, the limited view and engagement model represents a massive barrier to genuine collective practice and progress monitoring. Information systems are silo-ed, agencies have ‘policies’, and service providers often have multiple hands that feed them."
However, with the advent of tracking tools like Social Solutions’ Efforts to Outcomes (ETO) software, government agencies can now insist on increased reporting and improved outcomes from their programs and community partners.
By taking an evidence-based approach now, we can save states millions of dollars or more in the long run and truly help both John and Tom get back on their feet again.