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Rethinking Reentry

American Enterprise Institute

January 17, 2020

Policymakers and researchers have been searching for a solution to persistently high rates of recidivism for decades. While the number of incarcerated individuals under federal and state jurisdiction has decreased in recent years and is currently at a 10-year low, the United States still incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation. This level of incarceration has real consequences. 

By some estimates, nearly 70 million Americans have a criminal record. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, if you are a male born in 2001, there is a one in nine chance you will find yourself in prison in your lifetime. We see wide variations when broken down by race, with white men having a one in 17 chance of experiencing imprisonment, while black and Hispanic men have a one in three and one in six chance, respectively. Women have considerably better odds at a one in 56 chance, although the number of incarcerated women has jumped significantly over the past few decades. 

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the nearly 600,000 people released from federal and state prisons every year cannot successfully transition back into our neighborhoods and communities, often swiftly returning to incarceration for new crimes. A 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics report reinforces this dismal reality. The study examined nearly 68,000 people released from state prisons in 2005 and found that 83 percent—roughly equivalent to five out of six—were arrested again within nine years of their release. 

Why the recidivism rate has remained so high has puzzled criminologists, practitioners, researchers, and justice authorities for decades. Some have argued that the justice system is excessively “sticky,” essentially trapping those with criminal records in a cycle of crime and incarceration.

Others have pointed to racial bias in the criminal justice system or to the array of social, economic, and family challenges that many reentering individuals face when they return to their neighborhoods and communities. Federal, state, and local governments and private and philanthropic organizations have devoted billions of dollars to strategies and programs targeted at stopping the revolving door of crime and imprisonment. To date, the positive results from these programs have ranged from low to nonexistent. Whatever the solutions might be, it is safe to say limited progress has been made in finding them. 

This volume seeks to explore the roots of the reentry challenge and new approaches for trying to break out of the current policy box. It contains chapters by some of America’s leading researchers, policy experts, and evaluators in criminal justice, reentry, and recidivism. Each brings a particular perspective on the reentry challenge and how existing programs and practices might be strengthened or reformed to help improve criminal justice system performance and outcomes. Others propose more significant departures from existing strategies and practices as alternatives to explore. 

In Chapter 1, Pamela K. Lattimore, senior director for research development in the division for applied justice research at RTI International and a former senior official at the US Department of Justice, reviews outcomes of several seminal reentry evaluations, with a particular focus on the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative’s multisite evaluation. Lattimore synthesizes decades of reentry literature addressing the 1975 finding that “nothing works” in reentry6 and finds that many reentry and recidivism studies had “incomplete implementation for the treatment group(s), partial treatment for the control and comparison group(s), and weak findings on recidivism outcomes.” Lattimore’s chapter provides researchers with a road map for improving our understanding of what works and for whom. 

In Chapter 2, Edward Latessa, director of the University of Cincinnati’s School of Criminal Justice, presents a strategy for better aligning services to the needs of incarcerated individuals and those who have returned to the community. Building on decades of experience in the field, Latessa provides an overview of “what works” in reentry programming, underscoring the importance of prioritizing services to individuals with the highest risk of recidivism and offering interventions and programmatic components that focus on reducing criminal behavior by reshaping the attitudes and behaviors that drive it, as opposed to “non-criminogenic” services such as employment or housing that have shown little anti-recidivism value.

In Chapter 3, Nancy La Vigne, Urban Institute’s vice president for Justice Policy, and Janeen Buck Willison, senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, discuss the importance of incorporating first-person perspectives in reentry program design and evaluation. La Vigne and Buck Willison note that many reentry program evaluations fail to document how well a program was implemented and whether the program aligned with the designers’ original intent, structure, and processes. They underscore the need to solicit input from incarcerated people, program developers, and program implementers throughout the design and implementation process to give researchers a more holistic picture of a given program’s strengths and weaknesses.

In Chapter 4, Faye S. Taxman, a professor of criminology, law, and society at George Mason University, addresses the need for fidelity to evidence-informed practices as supported through implementation and intervention science. Taxman notes that a majority of current studies have not adequately examined the operational features of programs, leading to unanswered questions and ambiguity about what features of a successful or unsuccessful program drove the observed outcomes. Her chapter provides practical insights into ways of developing theoretically and operationally sound program implementation that improves participant outcomes and program evaluability.

In Chapter 5, Grant Duwe, research director for the Minnesota Department of Corrections and adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, writes about risk-needs-responsivity (RNR) assessments for individuals serving prison sentences. In his chapter, Duwe argues that RNR assessment is crucial to the success of rehabilitation programs but that the current assessment processes are often cumbersome and can limit correctional agencies’ ability to implement the correct intervention. Duwe makes the case for automated RNR assessments as a means of ensuring fiscal and staffing efficiency to align prison programming to incarcerated persons’ needs.

In Chapter 6, Shawn Bushway, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, discusses the evidence base behind two different paths to desistance: slow glide paths versus sharp transitions. These two patterns map to different underlying models and theories of desistance. The first fits well with a maturation model of desistance, and the second fits well with models that describe individually initiated identity transformations. Bushway argues that the evidence shows clearly that even high-rate individuals can and do exit the criminal justice system, without any evidence of a gradual stepping down. He believes reentry programming needs to consider the implications of this distinctive change pattern, particularly if it is associated with the individual adopting and maintaining a new pro-social identity.

In Chapter 7, Christy Visher, director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Drug and Health Studies; Daniel O’Connell, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Delaware; and Hannah Cortina, a research assistant at the Center for Drug and Health Studies, develop a rationale and strategy for creating and implementing cognitive behavioral communities within the walls of prisons. In their chapter, Visher, O’Connell, and Cortina address the challenge of “street culture” in prison and advocate for using around-the-clock cognitive behavioral therapy residential communities in prison to provide an environment that is more conducive to behavioral change, well-being, and rehabilitation.

In Chapter 8, I reflect on the insights in this edited volume and offer a new approach to reentry based on identity theory and personal agency that builds on many of our contributing scholars’ insights. The chapter seeks to create a rationale and framework for a new, experimental reentry program that would use best practices in risk-needs assessments and case management in specially designed cognitive behavioral therapy units in prisons. The program would focus on using the period of incarceration in an intentional effort to reshape criminogenic thinking, develop reentry plans designed principally by the incarcerated person, and offer Reentry Support Accounts for the purchase of goods and services aligned to the participant’s reentry plan.

I hope you find this volume helpful, whether you are a policymaker, criminal justice official, or citizen interested in becoming more educated about criminal justice reform. The authors and researchers who contributed to this volume are optimistic that rigorous research and the competition of ideas from both sides of the political and ideological aisle will lead us to, if not “what works,” at least “what will work better” in prisoner reentry. These scholars’ willingness to explore new concepts is a hopeful sign as we continue our work to create a better, more effective, and more compassionate criminal justice system that supports public safety while offering effective pathways to rehabilitation and reentry.