It’s time for us to overhaul the way we provide community-based reentry services in this country.
Evaluations of reentry programs show that most have either no impact or are increasing recidivism, or we need more evidence to determine their effectiveness.1 The majority of people released from prison are re-arrested.2
Yet, research shows us that when we work with the right people and do the right things in the right way, we can make a major impact on reducing re-offending.3
So, what gives?
There’s a big gap between what the research says works to reduce recidivism and the reentry services we provide in our communities. In this gap are a few wrong assumptions that keep us in a cycle of designing and funding reentry programs that have no chance of being effective.
Here I give you the run-down of three wrong assumptions that are costing us big time and one way we can overhaul our reentry system.
Assumptions that keep us in a cycle of designing and funding reentry services that have no chance of being effective
This first assumption is dangerous because it’s partly true. People coming out of prison do have needs that overlap with other groups – housing, food, and health, for example. Many different groups of people, including those coming home from prison, seek resources from community organizations for help with general needs.
But people cycling in and out of prison also have a distinct set of specialized needs not shared by other groups accessing social services. These specialized needs have been proven through research to be linked to criminal behavior.4
|Basic / General Needs||Specialized Needs|
|Housing||Criminal thinking, attitudes & beliefs|
|Medical||Personality traits: impulsive, low-frustration, egocentric, aggressive|
|Food||Lack of emotion regulation skills|
|Clothing||Lack of problem-solving skills|
|Transportation||Criminal peer associations|
A person returning from prison has important basic needs. Fulfilling these needs can stabilize a person’s life – they have a place to live, healthcare and a way to get around town. While providing basic needs is important and can change someone’s status or situation, they don’t affect criminal behavior directly.
Instead, meeting basic needs is often a prerequisite for addressing specialized needs. A person must be stable enough to effectively participate in services aimed at changing attitudes and beliefs.
When it comes to recidivism reduction, the mistake occurs when we provide basic needs as the end, rather than as the means to the end. Basic needs can help to stabilize a person’s life and can be a protective factor against exposure to risky situations and people, but it’s the services addressing specialized needs that directly reduce re-offending.
Providing employment services to a person recently released from prison who is aggressive, impulsive and has negative attitudes of authority, will do very little to reduce their probability of re-offending. 5 The person is likely to quit or get fired or get into other interpersonal problems outside of work that will impact their ability to keep a job.
Providing housing services to a person recently released from prison who has strong attitudes that support criminal behavior will not reduce their likelihood of returning to prison. Research shows us that the person will likely continue to live a criminal lifestyle if they don’t adjust their attitudes, regardless of their housing status.6
Organizations that provide basic needs services alone, while important and necessary, do not directly reduce recidivism.
The U.S. model of reentry primarily relies upon a patchwork of already existing community organizations to address the needs of people coming home from prison. These agencies include workforce development organizations, transitional housing providers, food banks, clothing closets, substance abuse and mental health services, and large multi-service non-profits. These are generalized social service organizations because they serve lots of different groups of people in need: single parents and veterans, displaced workers and people without housing and health insurance.
While these generalized organizations can help with basic needs related to reentry, they don’t have the organizational framework and in-house expertise to target the specialized needs of people coming out of prison.
Reducing recidivism is notoriously difficult. Even programs designed with the specific intent of reducing recidivism often don’t have the intended effect. When services for people coming out of prison get lumped into services for everyone else, we make no impact on reducing recidivism.
It’s time to create a new type of specialized reentry organization
We won’t fall into success when it comes to reducing recidivism. Effective reentry services require highly designed, carefully thought out, and well-implemented programs that have a model based on credible scientific evidence. People cycling in and out of prison need specialized services from specialized organizations.
People cycling in and out of prison need specialized services from specialized organizations.
We have behavioral health centers for people with needs related to substance use and mental health. We have shelters and transitional homes for people needing housing. Workforce development centers are designed for people needing employment. Domestic violence services are for people in abusive relationships, and so on.
Probation and parole departments monitor and supervise but aren’t designed to provide the help people needed to change criminal attitudes, thinking, and behavior.
The new reentry organization
If we want to help people coming out of prison live more responsibly, then we need to offer services that can help them do that. We need a new type of community organization designed for the sole purpose of reducing recidivism. We need specialized reentry organizations that provide treatment that research has shown impacts criminal behavior.
Specialized treatment focuses on:
- Countering and replacing thinking, attitudes, and beliefs that are supportive of crime
- Countering and replacing negative attitudes about employment, authority, and society
- Developing self-control and emotion regulation skills, especially related to aggression, low frustration, impulsivity, and substance use
- Improving problem-solving and interpersonal skills
- Improving relationships with pro-social friends, family, and others
The structure of the organization and the way the services are delivered are equally as important as the type of services provided.
The specialized reentry organization must:
- Have a program model based on scientifically credible evidence
- Have embedded expertise in correctional rehabilitation theory and practice and cognitive behavioral therapy
- Have a positive relationship culture between staff and participants to build trust and credibility
- Be highly structured with clear rules for accountability
- Use a behavioral program model, such as a token economy or point system and use incentives and consequences
- Provide all specialized services in-house and act as the liaison for any additional basic services provided by other organizations
- Be structured in a way that supports the intensity of programming needed to impact long-term behavior change for those at the highest risk to re-offend
There is a gap in our social services for people returning home from prison. How can expect to effectively address the problem of recidivism when we don’t yet offer a viable solution?
It’s time to design and fund a new type of reentry organization. It’s not the only solution we need, but it’s a good start.