One of the most harmful problems in the American criminal justice system is the rate at which the previously incarcerated re-offend. In fact, a Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report from 2021 analyzed 10-year re-arrest rates among prisoners released in 24 states and found that, within the 10-year follow-up, at least 82% of the previous inmates had been arrested at least once. About 61% of those former inmates returned to prison within the 10-year period, whether that be for a probation or parole violation or a sentence related to a different crime.
This reoffending is most likely to happen soon after release, with 43% of arrests taking place within the first year of being discharged. There is also a significant population that reoffends multiple times. Over the total 10-year follow-up, an astounding 2.2 million arrests were made among the approximately 409,300 previously released prisoners.
This ought to motivate policymakers to seek out prison-based intervention programming that reduces recidivism. The problem, however, is programming like that is notoriously hard to find and replicate. In fact, we know far more about what doesn’t work than what does. But that’s not to say there aren’t promising efforts and guiding principles worth pursuing.
Take, for example, the important ways in which employment keeps people from a life of crime. We have long known that offenders who get jobs upon release have far lower recidivism rates than those who do not work upon release, but why? While some have hypothesized it’s purely an economic question, studies seem to suggest it’s actually something else – purpose.
In fact, one study in Nebraska found work most reduced recidivism among inmates who found subjective meaning in their work and committed to it, regardless of the objective gain they received from it. This means that prison work programming should focus not just on the technical skills required, but how to build interpersonal relationships and find community through work.
Prison-based education programs are another promising intervention that, if scaled, could help reduce recidivism. This is particularly true of post-secondary education programming. Those who enroll in an education program while incarcerated are 48% less likely to return to prison than those who did not. As a result, it is estimated that every $1 spent on prison-based education saves taxpayers $4 to $5 in incarceration costs.
Drug and mental health treatment during and post-incarceration can also be critical in ensuring offenders with underlying issues get the help and support they need to lead productive lives. It is estimated that about 43% of state and 23% of federal prisoners had a history of mental health problems. Additionally, 39% of state and 31% of federal prisoners reported using drugs at the time of their offense.
Finally, there are a number of rigorously evaluated, specific programs from around the country that warrant replication and further experimentation. One such program is the Minnesota Comprehensive Offender Reentry Plan (MCORP). MCORP “attempted to increase offender access to community services and programming by producing greater case management collaboration between caseworkers in prison and supervision agents in the community.” Researchers found a statistically significant reduction in recidivism among participants in the program across the evaluation period.
By attempting to replicate best practices and investing in programs that have proven to reduce reoffending, policymakers can not only help previous offenders get back on the right track, but they can also reduce future victimization. That’s a win for everyone.