3 Attributes of Successful Reentry Programs

Social Solutions Blog

3 Attributes of Successful Reentry Programs

Successful reentry programs work to fill the gap that exists between recently released inmates and sustainable success. For many incarcerated individuals, the first few hours and days after they leave prison or jail are critical. In many states, they are handed a few dollars and dropped off at the nearest bus or train station. Not only are they faced with the prospect of finding transportation and shelter with little or no resources, but the structure and experience of being in prison can exacerbate the lack of education, problem-solving skills, and resiliency that often led to their incarceration in the first place.

Despite the occasional success story of a former inmate building a successful life, research continues to show that as many as 75% of ex-prisoners find themselves back in the criminal justice system within the first year. Successful performance management of re-entry programs and other anti-recidivism resources are critical to change those outcomes. And at the end of the day, reducing recidivism is important for both individuals and communities.

Even with access to employment, education, and therapeutic resources, transitioning back into community life is challenging. It’s not enough to simply offer resources. Successful, evidence-based reentry programs share several important attributes. Here are three that the science and statistics show are critical to any program’s success.

1. Support that is positive and non-punitive

Back in the 1980s, there was a rise in “boot camp” style reentry programs. As the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction explains, these types of programs were popular because “many people in government and the criminal justice system had experienced boot camp while in the armed services, and felt that it had positively impacted their lives.” The conventional thinking was that mirroring the military experience designed to create conformity and discipline would be equally beneficial to individuals who were perceived to lack those things. But, over time, the research showed no evidence that these types of programs reduced recidivism.

In fact, research has shown that harsh, punitive programs where punishments are most likely to be employed as motivation fail to reduce recidivism. Quite the opposite is actually true. Successful reentry programs provide the support that is positive and non-punitive. This means rewards are greater than punishments in every part of the program. When success, no matter how small, is celebrated and rewarded, individuals are more likely to reach their goals and milestones.

Plus, when positive encouragement is paired motivational goal setting and role-playing, recidivism goes down. These types of techniques can be integrated into individual case management and or incorporated into educational and vocational programming. Regardless, the data suggests that successful reentry has to focus on not just teaching folks how to succeed, but helping them experience what success feels like.

2. Individualized treatment and therapy

While there are well-documented best practices and evidence-based models for successful reentry programs, there is no such thing as “one size fits all.” In fact, most successful reentry programs share a commitment to individualized support and therapy.

In practice, that might mean matching them with a therapeutic approach that appeals to their individual learning style. It can mean providing a range of educational and vocational opportunities and assigning placement based on personality and temperament, not just skills and training. Or, it can mean integrating family therapy with substance abuse treatment or other interventions to help create a more supportive and successful home environment.

If you work with on-the-ground programs, you know that individualization can be challenging. In a previous post, we talked about the growing consensus around Risk-Needs-Responsivity (RNR) frameworks. Programs and strategies built on these frameworks target resources to those offenders who are at higher risk of recidivism and provide individualized services to address behaviors and circumstances associated with crime.

Implementing an RNR-based system requires robust assessment and tracking tools. Accordingly, individualization is facilitated by robust case management software that can help identify individual needs and then track and assess the success of each intervention on both an individual client level and across clients, programs, and sites.

3. Built on partnerships and collaboration

Reentry and recidivism reduction are multifaceted issues and no single program can address all of the needs at every stage of the process.

The range of challenges that lead to recidivism can include barriers to employment, lack of problem-solving skills, unresolved emotional and mental health conditions, substance abuse recovery, isolation and lack of community integration, and many others. Plus, we know that successful reentry doesn’t start the day someone is released from prison or jail. The best outcomes occur when there are preparation and support before, during, and after release.

Obviously, partnerships and collaborations are critical to any reentry program’s success. Great programs work closely with local police departments, courts, and the Department of Corrections. They implement case management approaches that integrate resources from other organizations and agencies. For example, making sure that a person in a vocational training program has access to substance abuse treatment or medical care for chronic conditions that might make it harder for them to keep a job in their chosen field.

For program staff and administrators, connecting and integrating their case management software or systems ensures that they can identify, track, and make the best use of the partnerships and collaborative opportunities they’ve cultivated. Program and staff performance management can be built around leveraging both internal and external resources to motivate successful collaboration. And, at the end of the day, it is the clients and program participants who benefit from these efforts.


Whether you’re focused on education, employment, transitional housing, substance abuse treatment or building cognitive and emotional resources, we know your goals are to support successful reentry and reduce recidivism. Luckily, the increased awareness of evidence-based best practices can provide a strong foundation and together we can succeed in creating safe communities that successfully integrate formerly-incarcerated individuals.

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