Each year, more than 600,000 citizens return to their communities throughout the U.S. after serving time in federal and state prisons. Meanwhile, 11.4 million people also cycle through local jails. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 1 in 3 Americans of working age have had an encounter with the criminal justice system.
Those numbers alone suggest a substantial challenge when it comes to reentry case work. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch frames that challenge in a powerful way:
“Sometimes the sheer size of these numbers … blunts our sensibilities to what they truly represent: people. Every number is a person. Behind every person is a family and surrounding every family is a community. These are people who could contribute to our economy, who could support their families and who could transform their communities into better places to live. If we are truly going to make the most of this precious resource, this human capital, we must ensure that these individuals have the tools and the skills and the opportunities they need to return to their communities not just as residents, but as leaders; equipped not only to survive, but to succeed. We must ensure that our returning brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers—our fellow Americans—can truly return home.”
So, how do you make sure individuals are supported in a positive transition back into the community and reduce the risk that they will find themselves back behind bars? Luckily, there has been a lot of research done about reentry and recidivism. That means we have a solid foundation of reentry case work best practices on which to build.
So, we wanted to highlight 5 important reentry best practices that should be at the heart of reentry case work.
If you are looking for inspiration, check out our case study The Game Changing Approach of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Reentry programs are most effective when they target individuals with a higher risk of recidivism. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that not targeting intervention based on risk levels fails to reduce recidivism. And in the case of low-risk offenders, can actually increase the likelihood of recidivism. It follows that an important reentry case work best practice is evaluating and identifying an individual’s risk of recidivism.
Case managers need to reliably assess and classify individual’s risk of reoffending. As the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) explains,
“Research demonstrates that risk to reoffend is most accurately assessed when structured, empirically based tools are used in combination with professional judgment. Furthermore, research has conclusively demonstrated that matching the level of intervention to offenders’ assessed level of risk produces the greatest reductions in recidivism, with minimal intervention provided to low-risk offenders and greater intervention provided to moderate and high-risk offenders.”
Making sure risk assessment are captured in your case management system is crucial so that caseworkers and other service providers and partners can adequately allocate resources to individuals in a systematic way.
Once risk is assessed, the next key reentry case work best practice is to identify individual needs that should be addressed through interventions. Offenders often have many needs, from mental health and addiction issues to housing and employment. What research shows is that some of those needs are far more linked to recidivism than others. These are referred to as “criminogenic needs.” Reentry case work best practices involve targeting these criminogenic needs with the right interventions.
The NIC notes that the criminogenic needs that most strongly predict recidivism include
- antisocial cognition (thoughts and beliefs) that support antisocial behavior
- antisocial temperament, which is often characterized by poor decision-making skills
- anger management difficulties and impulse control deficits
- antisocial associates
- family/marital stress
- substance abuse
- employment instability
- educational attainment and engagement difficulties
- lack of prosocial leisure activities
Not only does the research show that targeting criminogenic rather than non-criminogenic needs consistently lead to a reduction in recidivism, but the more of these needs that are addressed the better the outcomes. In fact, implementing interventions that target more criminogenic needs (say, addressing 3-4 criminogenic needs rather than 1 or 2) results in as much as an additional 30 percent reduction in the rate of recidivism.
The effectiveness of interventions depends on matching the right program to the individual and adapting the delivery so that it is most likely to be engaging and facilitate meaningful change. In general, research has also shown that interventions built on behavioral theories are most effective in reducing recidivism. These interventions focus on current factors that influence behavior, are action oriented, and follow “core correctional practices” (i.e., teaching problem-solving techniques, building quality interpersonal relationships, etc.).
In addition to focusing on behavioral approaches, interventions are most impactful when they are tailored to fit the learning styles, motivation, and strengths of individuals. That may mean adapting individual interventions. It might also mean adequately addressing intersecting needs.
For example, the vast majority of individuals rely heavily on family members for housing and support after their release. If an individual requires treatment for substance abuse issues, it would be important to ensure that the family dynamics and behavior are supportive of that treatment. So, family counseling services might be vital for one individual to successfully address substance abuse, but less needed for others.
Dosage refers to the number of treatment or intervention hours provided to an individual. Research has shown that dosage is an important factor in the effectiveness of reentry programs. Determining and delivering the appropriate dosage of interventions is a critical reentry case work best practice.
Doctors determine dosage using empirical calculations. For example, they may adjust the dosage of a specific drug based on the severity of a patient’s condition, mean of delivery (e.g., pill vs. injection), or a patient’s age and size. Determining dosage for reentry interventions should reflect a similar, empirical approach. That might involve optimizing both the total number of hours of intervention over the entire reentry process, but also the duration of the services. For some services or individuals, short, intensive interventions may be appropriate. For others, longer-term engagement may be critical.
The research shows that successful reentry programs provide support that is positive and non-punitive. This reentry case work best practice should ensure that rewards are greater than punishments in every part of the program. In fact, research indicates that programs that are most successful at reducing recidivism use positive incentives four times as often as sanctions. This approach is far more effective at increasing individual motivation towards positive behavior change that ultimately leads to lower recidivism rates.
Sanctions are still a necessary part of any reentry program, but they should be carefully designed to promote success and improvement. For example, the Council of State Governments Justice Center recommends that, when possible, probation agencies develop a standardized list of graduated sanctions. Rather than insisting that minor or technical violations automatically trigger the probation revocation process, “graduated sanctions give probation officers a range of responses to probationers’ behavior that helps build accountability and discourage recidivism. They also help ensure that each officer responds to violations with a level of swiftness and severity that is directly related to the probationer’s risk level and the condition of supervision that has been violated.”
Developing a strong foundation of these evidence-based best practices can mean dramatically improved outcomes for any reentry agency or organization. Reentry case workers and staff also need the right infrastructure and support as they implement these reentry best practices, including a robust case management system that allows them to implement, track, and evaluate these practices and outcomes across individuals and programs. We’re always excited to support the justice community as they build on these critical reentry case work best practices, and in turn, help former offenders to not only survive but succeed in their communities.