Stopping the Revolving Door: What we know—and still need to learn—about reducing recidivism in the United States

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Ben Struhl
Interior of a prison
Featuring research by Sara Heller, Jens Ludwig, Jonathan Guryan, Sendhil Mullainathan, Anthony Braga, Philip Cook, Songman Kang, Mallory O'Brien, Anuj K. Shah, Harold A. Pollack, Jennifer Doleac, and Benjamin Castleman.

More than three of every four individuals released from US prisons are re-arrested within five years. Given the sharp negative effects that incarceration has on individuals and their communities, as well as the often staggering expense of jails and prisons to governments and taxpayers, addressing this “revolving door” has become a top priority for many policymakers.

Reentry interventions—programs designed to help people readjust to society following their release from jail and prison—are one promising strategy. Individuals who were formerly incarcerated often face complex challenges after release and experience an increased risk of homelessness, unemployment, addiction, and trauma. Difficulty accessing housing, jobs, and treatment services puts this population at a high risk of reoffending, creating a self-perpetuating cycle.

Many employers are unwilling to hire individuals with criminal records, making it particularly challenging for formerly incarcerated individuals to find gainful employment. Researchers at the National Institute of Justice found that 60 to 75 percent of individuals who were recently incarcerated were unemployed one year after release, and when they do find employment, formerly incarcerated individuals can expect to earn 40 percent less on average than they did before going to jail. Low employment levels and low wages in the formal sector could drive individuals who were formerly incarcerated back to illegal activity, so helping formerly incarcerated individuals find jobs could be a key strategy to reducing recidivism.

Individuals involved with the criminal justice system also frequently experience a disruption in healthcare. 70 to 90 percent of the 10 million people released from jail or prison each year are uninsured. While a lack of insurance can have serious ramifications for the general population, the impact is particularly acute for recently released inmates, who experience mental illness, substance use disorders, infectious disease, and chronic health conditions at a rate that is seven times higher than the general population.

Lack of access to medical care can increase risk of recidivism among those with complex medical needs. This is particularly true for those with substance use disorders. A randomized control trial involving formerly incarcerated men with opioid use disorders found that nearly three-quarters relapsed within 3-months of release, even if they received counseling. A study conducted in Missouri found that individuals who were convicted of drug crimes and/or who have a history of addiction had a 62 to 82 percent estimated probability of re-arrest within 48 months.

The research community has done an extensive amount of work documenting and exploring the challenges faced by individuals who were formerly incarcerated and the resulting effects on prison populations when those individuals reoffend. However, as policymakers face tough choices about which reentry programs to support with limited funding available, we don’t know enough about which approaches work, which work best, and why.

The Milwaukee Safe Streets Prisoner Release Initiative (PRI)

At J-PAL North America, we’re supporting randomized evaluations to rigorously test prisoner reintegration policies and programs so policymakers can direct their efforts in the most effective way possible. Looking at some past examples of research is helping to guide our thinking on what still needs to be tested. In one study, researchers Anthony Braga (Harvard University), Philip Cook (Duke University), Songman Kang (Hanyang University), Jens Ludwig (University of Chicago), and Mallory O’Brien (Medical College of Wisconsin) evaluated the impact of the Milwaukee Safe Streets Prisoner Release Initiative (PRI) on improving employment prospects and reducing recidivism. The PRI provides intensive, comprehensive services to inmates in Milwaukee, Wisconsin both before and after release with the aim of improving their chance of finding a job and staying out of jail.

From 2009 to 2011, several J-PAL affiliates worked with state, local, and federal stakeholders to design and implement a randomized evaluation of the PRI. Male individuals in prison aged 35 or younger were eligible for the randomized controlled trial if they had a history of violence or gang involvement and were scheduled to be released in Milwaukee with at least six months of community supervision. Researchers randomly assigned 236 people in prison to either a treatment group, in which they automatically received extensive PRI services, or a control group in which they were free to sign-up for PRI programs but received no additional encouragement to do so and in some cases may have been placed on a waiting list if they did.

In the six months prior to release, individuals in the treatment group met with a social worker and were offered guaranteed access to a community employment program, vocational and soft-skills training, remedial education, the chance to participate in restorative justice circles (in which inmates met with victims to discuss the suffering caused by the crime), and treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. Individuals in the treatment group overwhelmingly took advantage of these services. Approximately 62 percent received treatment for addiction, the majority participated in restorative justice circles, and 54 percent participated in the community employment program. Those in the treatment group were also expected to participate in a twelve- to sixteen-week long cognitive therapy program to address behavioral issues that could lead to re-arrest. Approximately 72 percent participated in at least one session. In the 30 days before release, a coordinated-care team composed of social workers, job coaches, and other counselors worked with each individual in the treatment group to address housing, transportation, and employment needs.

After their release, formerly incarcerated individuals in the treatment group were eligible for substance-use treatment and the services through the community employment program. Employers were incentivized to hire individuals in the treatment group through subsidies, such as tax-credit certification. Those within the treatment group also took part in follow-up meetings with their coordinated-care team and underwent enhanced supervision from parole agents.

Results from the randomized evaluations found some positive indications within the first year of release. The PRI program increased the likelihood of some employment from 55.5 to 80 percent. 81 percent of the treatment group reported earnings in their first year out of prison, compared to 59 percent of the control group. Those within the treatment group experienced a reduction in the likelihood of re-arrest as compared to the control group (63 versus 72 percent) but there was no discernable difference in the rate of re-incarceration.

However, the PRI’s success was limited—while the program increased the likelihood of formerly incarcerated individuals earning an income at all, the treatment group still earned very low wages. Median earnings were approximately $2,700 among the treatment group, leaving many in poverty. The intensive services offered in this intervention did not improve the financial situation of individuals who were formerly incarcerated to a point of reliable economic self-sufficiency. Their income was not enough to lift a family of two out of poverty. Furthermore, the decrease in the likelihood of reimprisonment for those in the treatment group, as compared to those in the control group, was not statistically significant. This suggests that these intensive services are not cost-effective due to the minimal impact on recidivism.

Through this evaluation, the researchers also aimed to explore a possible causal link between employment and recidivism that has been suggested by previous non-randomized studies. For example, researchers at the Urban Institute conducted a longitudinal study in which they interviewed 740 men who were formerly incarcerated. Researchers found that individuals who were able to secure jobs were less likely to be re-incarcerated eight to twelve months after release. This reduction in recidivism was even more pronounced for those receiving higher wages. Depending on wages rates, employed individuals who were formerly incarcerated experienced an 8 to 16 percent likelihood of being re-arrested, depending on wages, compared to 23 percent for those who were not employed. Those receiving the highest wages were more likely to stay out of the criminal justice system. However, since there were so many facets of PRI, it is unclear whether employment deterred recidivism or if other services offered through the program played a bigger role.

A Different Approach to Recidivism: Behavioral Interventions

A cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) program used in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) in Chicago, IL offers a potentially more scalable model for policymakers to adopt in new contexts. The therapy sessions, studied by Sara Heller (University of Pennsylvania), Anuj K. Shah (University of Chicago), Jonathan Guryan (Northwestern University), Jens Ludwig (University of Chicago), Sendhil Mullainathan (Harvard University), and Harold A. Pollack (University of Chicago), generated small but significant and sustained reductions in recidivism at a much lower cost than the PRI.

From 2009 to 2011, the JTDC leadership randomly assigned nearly 2,700 young men admitted to JTDC to either treatment or control centers. Twice a day, trained detention staff led group CBT sessions for members of the treatment group, which were targeted at reducing impulsive and harmful behaviors that can lead to criminality. This intervention took place in some residential units within JTDC, but not others. This CBT curriculum—developed by Dr. Bernie Glos and his associates at the DuPage County Illinois Juvenile Detention Center—was created by surveying other CBT programs and adapting them based on behavioral science research. This allowed for an extensive understanding of the key elements necessary for successful implementation of CBT in a juvenile detention center.

This CBT program helped youth avoid being readmitted to JTDC after their release. Juveniles who complied with the treatment were 13 percentage points less likely to be readmitted to JTDC than their control counterparts within two months after release, and 16 percentage points less likely after 18 months (equivalent to a 21 percent reduction in readmission rates to JTDC).

While both the CBT program at JTDC and the PRI intervention were successful by some measures, the PRI intervention cost about $5,000 per participant, whereas the JTDC program cost approximately $60 each. Intensive programs like the PRI may need to have a greater and more sustained impact on recidivism to justify the high cost. On the other hand, investing in cognitive behavioral therapy programs like the one used at JTDC can produce returns ranging from 5-to-1 to 30-to-1 in averted recidivism costs.

Governments, service providers, and researchers are continuing to develop innovative projects aimed at finding scalable, effective solutions to close our criminal justice system’s revolving door. With support from J-PAL North America made possible by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Jennifer Doleac and Benjamin Castleman of the University of Virginia are testing a tablet-based reentry module in two county jails that aims to strengthen transition back into society. Through this module, individuals in prison create a personalized transition plan prior to release, and after leaving jail receive support and reminders to encourage them to adhere to their plan. If effective, this highly-scalable, technology-based and behavioral-science informed strategy may be a promising tool for successful reentry reforms.

With a renewed wave of political attention and practitioner innovation in this space, there is so much more we can—and must—learn about how best to support justice-involved individuals to make our communities safer and reduce the burden of our criminal justice system. At J-PAL North America, we’re always excited to hear from prospective partners interested in expanding the evidence base on reentry policy. Reach out to J-PAL North America’s crime sector manager, Kalila Jackson-Spier ([email protected]), with your own ideas for evaluations.

Authored By

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    Ben Struhl