The correctional system in the United States is at a critical crossroads. On one path, correctional leaders and their legislative counterparts have increasingly begun to embrace the concept of preparing prisoners for successful reintegration. On the other path is this bumpy road to economic recovery. The tension between these two paths is great. Considering this tension, can reentry programs be both effective and cost beneficial? In this speech delivered to the Princeton University Policy Research Institute for the Region, JPC Center Director Nancy G. La Vigne examines that question.
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Today, the correctional system in the United States is at a critical crossroads. On one
path, correctional leaders and their legislative counterparts have increasingly begun to
embrace the concept of preparing prisoners for successful reintegration. They now
publicly acknowledge that doing so can reduce the number of people that return to prison,
while also lowering victimization in the community. Federal initiatives like the Second
Chance Act are a testament to this new philosophy. On the other path is this bumpy road
to economic recovery. If that recovery is happening, it is doing so at a slow pace, with
state and county budgets shrinking rather than growing in the near term. The tension
between these two paths is great: states, cities, and counties are seriously strapped for
resources. These pressures are generating cost-cutting measures across the board—from
the early release of prisoners to staff reductions. Unfortunately, those measures also
include reducing or even eliminating reentry programs and treatment behind bars. The
phrase "penny wise and pound foolish" comes to mind, in that these are the programs that
will ultimately stem the flow of people recycling into the correctional system.
A better way is to communicate more extensively and persuasively that reentry programs
work and that they can be cost beneficial. But do reentry programs work? The answer is a
definitive "it depends." Some programs work for some populations in some situations.
Programs vary in terms of content and quality, and their impact on recidivism varies
accordingly. That is why the Urban Institute has partnered with the Council of State
Governments on this topic in conjunction with the National Reentry Resource Center
(funded by the Second Chance Act). Our charge is to develop an online, searchable
"What Works in Reentry" compendium, employing criteria vetted by the academic
community but tailored for use by practitioners and policymakers.
While our findings on program effectiveness may be mixed, our research at the Urban
Institute suggests that, programs aside, exposure to specific reentry practices is associated
with better outcomes for exiting prisoners. Our landmark study, Returning Home:
Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry, interviewed soon-to-be released
prisoners in four states, following them in the community for up to a year. That research
gleaned the following insights:
- Education, specifically obtaining one's GED behind bars, is associated with
higher rates of employment after release.
- Employment matters in preventing recidivism, but what makes the biggest
difference is the wages one earns; released prisoners who earn $10?12 an hour are
twice as likely to remain crime free than their employed counterparts earning
- Drug treatment behind bars is associated with lower rates of relapse in the
- Family support can make a tremendous difference in reentry outcomes. Those
with strong financial and emotional support from family members are less likely
to relapse and return to prison. (Nearly all participants interviewed said they had
at least one supportive family member in their lives).
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