Prison System in America

V. Prisoner Reentry in the 21st Century

Over the past 15 to 20 years, a significant body of scholarship has addressed the issue of prisoner reentry into society, a focus that evolved due to the rapidly increasing number of prisoners being released—now nearly 800,000 per year—as well as the high rate of recidivism. (About two thirds of prisoners are readmitted to prison within 3 years of release.) This issue has become a major concern among those who study issues associated with reentry, deterrence, rehabilitation, and the possible criminogenic effects of imprisonment. Some scholars are convinced that the return of so many offenders—many who are committed to a criminal lifestyle—has a significant independent effect on crime rates.

In 2000, researchers at the Urban Institute launched an ongoing inquiry into prisoner reentry research to better understand the pathways to successful reintegration; the social and fiscal costs of current policies; and the impacts of incarceration and reentry on individuals, families, and communities. Their findings focus on several key dimensions of reentry.

A. Housing and Reentry

Perhaps the most immediate challenge facing returning prisoners is to secure housing. Many plan to stay with families, but those who don’t face limited options. The process is complicated by scarcity of affordable and available housing, legal barriers and regulations, prejudices that restrict housing options, and strict eligibility requirements for federally subsidized housing. Research shows that those without stable housing are more likely to return to prison, and the majority of released prisoners themselves believe that having stable housing is important for successful reentry.

The majority of returning prisoners live with family members or intimate partners after release. Three months after release, 60% to 85% of returning prisoners live with families or partners. Many return home to living arrangements that are only temporary, and 6 to 8 months after release about one third had lived at more than one address. More than half of returning prisoners in Illinois thought they would not be staying in their current neighborhood for long, and in Maryland over half expected to be moving within weeks or months (Lynch & Sabol, 2001). Those who do not stay with family face limited options—many of which are unavailable to formerly incarcerated people. The shortage of affordable and available housing is a serious problem for returning prisoners.

B. Employment and Reentry

Finding and maintaining employment is critical to successful prisoner reentry. Employment is associated with lower rates of reoffending, and higher wages are associated with lower rates of criminal activity. But prisoners face enormous challenges in finding and maintaining legitimate job opportunities—including low levels of education, limited work experience, and limited vocational skills. This is further compounded by the incarceration period during which they forfeit the opportunity to gain marketable work experience and sever professional connections and social contacts that might lead to employment on release. In addition, the general reluctance of employers to hire former prisoners serves as a barrier to job placement.

While prisoners believe that having a job would help them stay out of prison, on average only about 1 in 5 reported that they had a job lined up immediately after release. Moreover, despite the need for employment assistance, few prisoners receive employment-related training in prison. Even ex-cons who do find work do not necessarily have full-time or consistent work. At 4 to 8 months after release, 44% of Illinois respondents reported having worked for at least 1 week since their release. But less than one third were employed at the time of the interview, and only 24% of all respondents were employed full-time. At their first post-release interview, nearly 60% of ex-cons in Maryland were either unemployed or working less than 40 hours per week (Lynch & Sabol, 2001). Making things more difficult, transportation is a significant barrier to employment. More than one third of released prisoners had problems obtaining a car for work, and nearly one quarter reported problems accessing public transportation. It is widely accepted that finding and maintaining employment reduces recidivism, and an increase in levels of employment serves to reduce drug dealing, violent crime, and property crime.

Browse criminal justice research papers or view criminal justice research topics.