What is reentry? Why is it important? And what research is being done in this field? NIJ Journal Editor Beth Pearsall hosts a conversation on reentry with Senior Science Advisor Angela Moore, Senior Social Science Analyst Marie Garcia, and Social Science Analyst Eric Martin.
This episode of Justice Today was produced by and discusses the work of the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.
Reading and Resources from the National Institute of Justice
- Reentry Research at NIJ: Providing Robust Evidence for High-Stakes Decision-Making
- Recidivism Forecasting Challenge
- Specialized Smartphones Could Keep Released Offenders on Track for Successful Reentry
- Role of Human Services During Community Supervision
- Child Support and Reentry
- Recruitment, Assessment, and Retention in the Direct Care Workforce for Individuals With Criminal Records: A Comprehensive Model Approach
- Formerly Incarcerated Women and Reentry: Trends, Challenges, and Recommendations for Research and Policy
- Overview of Offender Reentry
- NIJ's Role Under the First Step Act
- NIJ awards on this topic
Exhibit S: From Successful Reentry to Stronger Communities
SPEAKER 1: Welcome to Justice Today, the official podcast of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, where we shine a light on cutting edge research and practices, and offer an in-depth look at what we’re doing to meet the biggest public safety challenges of our time. Join us as we explore how funding, science, and technology help us achieve strong communities.
SPEAKER 2: Welcome to Exhibit S: How Science is Advancing Criminal Justice. This show explores the research that shapes the justice system in America. We feature researchers, criminal justice professionals, and other experts, all aiming to strengthen the science of criminal justice. Enjoy the show.
ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Welcome, everyone. I’m Beth Pearsall, the Managing Editor of the NIJ Journal. And I’m your host for today’s show where we’ll be discussing reentry. I’m joined today by three guests from NIJ. And I’m going to ask them each to introduce themselves right now.
MARIE GARCIA: Hi, Beth. This is Marie Garcia in the Office of the Director at NIJ. Thank you for having me today.
ANGELA MOORE: Hello, Beth. This is Angela Moore from the Office of Research, Evaluation, and Technology.
ERIC MARTIN: Hi, Beth. This is Eric Martin. I’m also in the Office of Research, Evaluation, and Technology at NIJ. Pleasure to be here.
ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Well, welcome. And thank you all for being here with me today. I’d like to start our conversation off with a more general question because many people may not understand exactly what reentry is. So, Eric, let’s start with you. What is reentry?
ERIC MARTIN: Thanks, Beth. Reentry is the process with which someone who’s incarcerated in a jail or prison setting is released back to the community. And I want to stress the word process, because it’s more than just they have served their sentence or they’re getting early release, and then they go out the door. There are efforts to connect them with programming. They may have supervision requirements to meet with a parole officer in the community. And we stress we want a continuity of care from what they received on the inside going out into the community. And also one thing we tend not to think about, reentry occurs for all individuals who served an incarcerated sentence for a crime. This could be low level drug offenses, white collar crimes, or serious or violent offenses. But the process of reentry and their likelihood of success is not equally felt by all individuals who are released into the community. There are a number of needs and also issues that that individual may need to overcome in order to be successfully reintegrated back to their community.
ANGELA MOORE: And Eric I just like to add that reentry occurs at many points in the system. But most research tends to focus on the back-end, when individuals are in prison or they’re released from jail.
ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Okay, great. Thank you guys. That’s really helpful. So Marie, let’s turn to you now. So, why is the reentry process important? You know, why are we even talking about it today?
MARIE GARCIA: Thanks, Beth. This is a really important question. And it’s really important that individuals in the community and in the public understand that the vast majority of individuals who are in prison and jail, upwards of 90% or so, most of them will return to our communities. They will be our neighbors; they’ll be the people that we live with, and the people that we work with. So it’s really important that we understand that the individuals who go into custody, most will come out, and hopefully they’ll be contributing members of our communities.
And it’s really important that we’re focusing on it right now because President Biden declared April as Second Chance Month. So, the Office of Justice Programs, including NIJ and our partners, are doing all that we can during the month of April to advertise, and market, and disseminate research on reentry, and other areas that are related to reentry. And reentry is really important because we want to ensure public safety. As Eric mentioned, for individuals who come out of custody, they have a lot of needs, and a lot of issues that we have to address. So, in order for them to be successful and to keep the community safe, we need to make sure that they have what they need. And we want to reduce the likelihood that these individuals engage in criminal behavior once they come out into the community, so we want to focus on their needs and make sure they have everything they need to be successful when they come out.
ERIC MARTIN: Great points, Marie. And I just want to stress if I could, the best way to reduce the likelihood of them committing another crime is for them to succeed at reentry. We want them to become full, law-abiding members of society; reconnect with their family; get legal, gainful employment; and really work to strengthen their community. When individuals succeed outside of prison or jail, they help contribute to make strong communities.
ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Great. So you both mentioned that, you know, the aim is to give these individuals the tools to succeed. And from the research, we know that many do successfully reintegrate back into their communities. But we also know that a large number don’t and find themselves back--going back to prison or jail. So Angela, can you talk about why this is, you know, why is recidivism so common?
ANGELA MOORE: Sure, Beth. I mean, there are a number of reasons why recidivism is so common. And let me just talk about it from the individual perspective. So, individuals released from prison may have thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors that may place them at risk for future crime. They also, as Eric and Marie pointed out, have a number of needs that should be met before meaningful work to address risks can occur. For example, some of these needs include eliminating criminal thinking, minimizing associations with antisocial peers, addressing mental health challenges, substance abuse treatment, and obtaining the necessary skills to acquire gainful employment.
MARIE GARCIA: So just to piggyback on what Angela just said, there’s a lot of needs programmatically and otherwise that individuals need to be successful when they come out, back into the community, which makes programming really difficult. As Angela mentioned, it’s important for individuals to have gainful employment. But before you can do that, you need to make sure the person can actually be employable, that they’re actually going to show up for work on time, that they’re going to be able to get along with colleagues and, you know, engage positively with customers or with their supervisors. And so you want to make sure that they have the skills they need to actually be employed. So it’s not enough to have a job. But you need to be able to show up and actually do everything that’s required of you as a contributing member of the public.
And on its own programming isn’t going to reduce recidivism, but again, it’s really important that they have their needs addressed. And it’s really important that we think about this as a continuum of change. There’s likely an optimal point at which we deliver certain treatments or programs, but we need to make sure what those are. We need to make sure for instance that if someone’s in prison or jail for a long period of time, that we don’t stack their programs at the front end of their sentence because we want them to be engaging in meaningful programming on their way out of custody. So, what’s the right programming? At what dosage? At what time in their sentence? So there’s a lot to consider when we address programmatic and other needs.
ERIC MARTIN: And just to jump in Marie, too, what may make this process even more complex are collateral consequences. And collateral consequences are a blanket term we give to restrictions that a state or local jurisdiction may place on individuals with a conviction. This could restrict certain employment eligibility, access to aid for education, public housing, and also voting rights. So, as those programs are being delivered, practitioners also need to be aware of any pertinent collateral consequences in their area.
ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Okay. Great. So now I’m wondering, you know, where does NIJ fit into all of this? So, Marie, maybe you can start us off?
MARIE GARCIA: Sure. So, our former Director Jeremy Travis coined the term reentry at NIJ in the ‘90s. And it’s really something that all practitioners in criminal justice and corrections, jail administrators, everyone talks about reentry. And it all started with NIJ. And since the 1990s, NIJ has supported a tremendous amount of research in the area of reentry. And we continue to do so.
Also, we’ve done a lot of work in desistance from crime. And what makes desistance different from reentry is that reentry, we’re typically talking about what happens when a person comes out of custody. But desistance, we’re looking at the long term process, you know, how does someone who comes out of prison stay out for the long term, you know, 10, 15, 20 years. And so, both of those areas, the short term immediate reentry and the desistance actually tells us a lot of information about what gaps and needs we need to fill in the literature.
ERIC MARTIN: We also have a number of research projects completed on the practitioner side, how best to supervise these individuals and provide them with programming that they need. We’ve conducted research on home visits. This is kind of the bread and butter of a community supervision officer’s role to interact with their client in the community. And we conducted research in how many visits are appropriate based on the individual’s risk and what should be done--what should occur in those visits. We also conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the HOPE Probation Program that really was a judge-led program, looked at short individual graduated sanctions, but also with an emphasis to keep the individual on probation as long as possible. And apart from just how to do the job or program evaluations, we also looked at how technology can support the community supervision officer, not only with GPS monitoring to keep individuals away from certain areas; we also looked at kiosk reporting. Perhaps, not every individual on community supervision has to physically go to meet with their probation or parole officer, so we looked at alternative technology with which they can still connect with their community supervision officer.
MARIE GARCIA: So, as Eric just discussed, there’s a lot that we’ve looked at in terms of practice and technology, but we’re also looking at major federal reentry initiatives. NIJ assessed The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative that was passed about 20 years ago now. And the Second Chance Act, which was recently reauthorized with the First Step Act in 2018. So we’re looking at these major initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels to see what impact the provision of funding and programmatic support provides to these communities with the reentry framework. And NIJ, as I mentioned, in these federal initiatives, we also are playing a major role in the implementation of the First Step Act, which was passed in December of 2018. Now, the First Step Act focuses primarily on individuals in federal custody, but we still are going to learn a lot about what works for them, and how that might translate for other individuals as well.
ANGELA MOORE: And in addition to what Eric and Marie mentioned, we also have promoted the development of advanced risk assessment tools with what we call the Recidivism Challenge. And for some of our listeners who might not be aware of what a challenge is, essentially, that’s a contest. So we ask individuals to basically provide us with their best and brightest ideas on a particular topic; in this case, how we could develop better risk assessment tools and the best ones actually win a monetary prize. So we did that and through the Challenge, we sought to promote fair and accurate risk assessments to work to reduce racial bias and identify the unique risk and impact of risk, particularly for women.
MARIE GARCIA: And that’s a great point, Angela. And relatedly, NIJ was key in developing a risk assessment tool for the Bureau of Prisons. Now, as I mentioned, the First Step Act focuses primarily on the federal prison system. And the tool that we developed was for the Bureau of Prisons. The tool is called PATTERN. And NIJ is reviewing and revalidating the tool each year. And what we’re finding so far is that it works well. There are things that we could address and will be addressing in the coming years, but it’s working very well. And as Angela mentioned, we’re looking to reduce racial bias and identify unique challenges for the individuals in federal custody. So we’re really excited about the work that we’re doing with PATTERN.
ANGELA MOORE: So as Marie and Eric mentioned, we have a lot going on. But there’s still more because we have a robust portfolio of ongoing reentry program evaluations. As a matter of fact, we have 16 ongoing right now. And these evaluations, they’re randomized controlled trials, they focus on a variety of different topics and areas, they are assessing innovative programs. For example, they are identifying emerging themes for the field, such as latent brain trauma, and best practices for young adults, different factors that can impact whether or not an individual successfully reenters their community.
ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Wow. Thank you. That is a significant portfolio. And we obviously don’t have time to go into, you know, every single, you know, program and evaluation. So, you know, Marie, I was hoping you could summarize for our listeners some of the key findings that--of what we’ve learned through this research. You know, what do we know about what works in reentry and, alternately, you know, what doesn’t work.
MARIE GARCIA: Sure thing. So we’ve learned a lot in the literature and as Angela mentioned, there’s a lot for us to do. So, so far we know that relationships matter. Reengaging with your family, reengaging with your children, having a good relationship with your community supervision officer, all of these things really impact ones success when they come back to the community. And again, you know, having gainful employment, having, you know, being--having food security is really helpful; housing. So it’s not just one thing, it’s a combination of factors that really help promote one successful reentry.
ERIC MARTIN: And Marie, if I could just jump in. One of the benefits of having a positive relationship with the Community Corrections Officer is that the individual and the Corrections Officer can really work to tailor the reentry experience for that individual, in a sense. Because one thing we learned is reentry is not one size fits all. Individuals have unique needs, they have unique risks. And, to the extent possible, we need to try to tailor that risk, the supervision strategies, and programming to meet those needs and risks. For instance, as Angela alluded to with the Challenge, we learned that men and women respond differently to the same risk factor. You cannot just say if that risk factor is present, to predict certain behavior. You need a much more nuanced approach. And also, as far as supervision strategies for these individuals, we learned that too onerous a supervision strategy for a low risk individual may actually exacerbate their recidivism risk. You may be doing more harm than good. So you really need a nuanced knowledge and information on that individual to, you know, provide the optimal number of supervision contacts and programs.
ANGELA MOORE: And just picking up on that issue of addressing risk and needs, we’ve learned that that is really hard to do. Also, as I mentioned earlier, addressing the comorbidity issues such as substance abuse, and severe mental illness, that can really complicate reentry for many individuals released from prison and/or jail. Community and familial support, again, those are essential. Reengaging with children, having employment, like Marie said, housing, food, security; all of these things, they can enhance the likelihood of success when an individual is returning to the community. Although reentry tends to be discussed and refocused on the back-end, reentry really needs to be a priority at all points in the criminal justice system. And lastly, there needs to be a continuity of care for the individual as they transition from prison to the community. They are going to need resources and assistance right as they are released. But then over time, as they change, they may need other resources, and so we should be prepared to provide them.
ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Great. And so picking up on that theme, you know, one thing you guys have stressed throughout our conversation is the need for the reentry services to be individualized, tailored to the unique needs of each person. Marie, can you walk me through this from a practical standpoint? You know, what does that mean for, you know, someone who’s in charge of programming in prison, in jails, or community supervision, et cetera?
MARIE GARCIA: So, to the extent possible, we need--as Angela mentioned, we need to look at reentry from day one, you know, from engaging with the justice system on the first--at their first time. We need to look at the entire system. As Angela mentioned at the top of our conversation, reentry happens at multiple points in the justice system. It’s not just the back-end corrections, you know, situation that we typically talk about. We need to look at intake, you know, diversion opportunities, assessment, programming. And with regard to, you know, jail and prison administrators who are in charge of programming, we need to make sure that we have the right staffing levels. Right. We need to make sure that we have the right--not just the right staffing, but the right staff with the right qualifications, you know, providing the right types of treatment. That’s really, really important. And as individualized as we would love it to be, that’s really hard. But we have a lot of individuals who are in custody, who have a lot of different needs. So if we can individualize, that is the goal. But when that’s not possible, you should provide the type of programming that’s best for your--for most of your population for the most common needs, if that is also a possibility.
And we need to look for areas of success. When we talk about reentry in the literature, we typically talk about: did someone fail? Did they recidivate? Did they go back to jail? Were they rearrested? We need to refine that. And we need to take a more positive approach. Because even though someone goes back to prison, they may have had legal employment for nine months. And maybe that was the first time they were actually legally employed. That’s a win. And that’s a success. And that’s something we need to make note of when we talk about successes in reentry.
And again, as I mentioned before, we need to take a more holistic approach. It’s not just about whether someone went back to prison or was rearrested. You know, did they pay their child support? Did they reengage with their family? You know, were they able to obtain housing? All of these things taken together make for a re--a successful reentry into the community. So we need to look at it not just from one lens, but we need to pull back and look at this more holistically, if we can.
ERIC MARTIN: One thing I just thought of Marie, is that maybe perhaps some of our focus on negative outcomes is colored by the fact that we have a lot of knowledge on risk. In corrections, we use the term R&R quite frequently. It’s a core correctional practice. And in--briefly, what R&R refers to is someone’s criminogenic risk: what’s the likelihood or the probability they’ll commit a new crime? What needs do they have? How could we meet those needs? And then, responsivity: how are they going to be engaging with program? How receptive are they?
We tend to know how to measure and assess risk quite well. And that’s for obvious reasons. We have information regarding the instant offense, the crime that led that individual to incarceration, at our fingertips. We can obtain their criminal history. We understand the age at which they were first arrested. But getting at what needs do they have, how do you quantify--quantifiably assess that over a large number of people? And then also, how do you understand how receptive they are to a particular service or program? That’s very complex, especially with the number of individuals that community corrections seeks to assist as they reenter. If we start to focus more on needs and responsivity, it may help us, as a field, change our outlook.
ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Right. Thank you. I’d like to wrap up our conversation today with a look forward. What do each of you see as some of the pressing areas that the field still needs to focus on? And, Eric, we’ll start with you.
ERIC MARTIN: Sure. Just to reiterate what I just ended with, I think, if we could start working on how to assess needs and responsivity, even using dynamic factors, or with real time information, I think that would be a big win for the field, not only for the individual as they reenter, but also for the community corrections officer. We’re dealing with huge case loads, these community corrections officers are, and we’re asking them to try to individualize supervision and services to the extent possible. That’s a quite a tall order. And I think looking at, you know, innovative ways to assess needs and responsivity over a large group of people may help us understand, you know, what programs are going to work for what people and, for lack of a better word, increase the bang for--of our buck, so to speak, as I--as we deliver those services.
MARIE GARCIA: Right, Eric. And to your point about delivering services, understanding the optimal time to provide services is really important. As I mentioned earlier in an example, when you have someone perhaps that’s serving a long sentence, you may not want to give them programming right at the beginning of their sentence; that may not be the most optimal time. But as they start to prepare and develop their parole plans or their reentry plans, you know, they start engaging with their families about where they’ll live when they--when they leave custody, you know, that might be a really good time to start delivering programming and addressing the more critical needs they have that they’ll--that they’ll need to engage with the community and their--and their families when they leave custody. So understanding when they’re open to change, you know, when they--when they’re in the right place to actually engage in these programing--the programming options and--and take what they can learn from them. I mean, that’s a really important part of the program delivery experience.
ANGELA MOORE: And I would say Beth, certainly given that we are the research development and evaluation agency for the Department of Justice, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we need to continue to measure, assess, and evaluate how well we are doing. And we have a lot of tools, you know, we mentioned all the different evaluations that we have going on and the different types, et cetera. But one particular tool I want to mention is CrimeSolutions. So CrimeSolutions is NIJ’s evidence-based clearing house. We use rigorous evaluations to determine what works, what doesn’t, and what’s promising in addressing crime, delinquency, and victimization. So if one wants to find out more about this resource, which can be of great utility to the practice community, students, as well as researchers, they can just go to crimesolutions, one word, .ojp.gov. Again, that’s crimesolutions.ojp.gov.
ELIZABETH PEARSALL: Great. Well, thank you, Angela, Marie, and Eric for joining me today to talk about the important and complex issue of reentry. It’s been a really great conversation. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. We hope you enjoyed it. Please stay tuned for additional episodes of Exhibit S.
SPEAKER 2: Exhibit S is the official podcast of the National Institute of Justice, the research, development, and evaluation agency of the United States Department of Justice. To learn more about today’s topic or about NIJ, visit the links in the episode description and join us for new episodes every month.
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Opinions or points of view expressed in these recordings represent those of the speakers and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. Any commercial products and manufacturers discussed in these recordings are presented for informational purposes only and do not constitute product approval or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Justice.