For the first time in history, the federal government is dedicating a week to draw attention to a pressing issue: the reintegration of incarcerated persons back into their communities. National Reentry Week is much more than just a symbolic gesture, resulting in a large array of events and workshops at federal correctional facilities and US attorneys offices across the country.
Yet the symbolism is meaningful. We’ve come a long way since 2004, when President George W. Bush took a bold and unprecedented stand on reentry, arguing in his State of the Union address that “when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.” At the time, our knowledge of the issues and challenges surrounding reentry were nascent, exploratory, and largely qualitative.
National Reentry Week provides us with the opportunity to take stock of what we have learned about reentry over the past decade and how it can inform policy and practice.
What we know about reentry now
Back in the day, there was very little reentry research, aside from recidivism studies that relied on administrative data and treated “reentry” as a moment in time rather than a process of reintegration. These studies examined whether factors such as age, race, and criminal history predicted a return to prison.
Urban’s Returning Home initiative was the first large-scale empirical study to unpack the process of reintegration. We obtained our data from the best experts in the field—incarcerated persons themselves—interviewing people behind bars and over the year following their release. This study established a body of knowledge that, along with a large volume of research that followed it, illustrates the many issues surrounding the transition from incarceration to freedom.
Much of what we learned is confirmatory—it stands to reason that having a job is a key component of reentry—but we’ve also found that reintegration is complex and nuanced. Reentry success or failure can depend on a whole host of factors ranging from the community to which one returns, to employment challenges, to health care needs. And these factors aren’t always obvious.
Surely we can all agree that community context matters. Conventional wisdom, suggests that most people return from prison back to the same “street corner” or community where they lived before prison. Not so, according to our research, which found about half of people exiting prison don’t return to their former neighborhoods. Those who moved did so to avoid trouble or because their families had moved. This finding is important in that relocating to a new geographic area following incarceration has been found to substantially reduce the odds of returning to prison.
Employment is a critical ingredient in reentry success, but it’s not just having a job—it’s how much you make. People who earned more than $10 an hour were half as likely to return to prison as those making less than $7 an hour. And something as simple as having a picture ID at the time of release—necessary for applying for and securing a job—can make a critical difference in reentry success or failure.
Many physical health, mental health, and substance abuse conditions go untreated behind bars. But for those who do receive treatment while incarcerated, it may be the most consistent source of care they get. More should be done to support a continuity of health care from correctional facilities to the community. Enrolling incarcerated populations in Medicaid before their release presents a promising strategy to do so.
From research to policy
These findings have important implications for successful reentry policy development and service delivery—and they barely skim the surface of what we’ve learned about reentry since 2004.
Yet despite all this evidence, people transition home without the skills and support they need to become law-abiding members of society, and recidivism rates remain stubbornly high. National Reentry Week should serve as a wake-up call to the field that we still have a lot of work to do to turn our knowledge into action.