What’s Promising in Prisoner Reentry?

Meredith Emigh, University of New Haven

Approximately 90-95% of prisoners eventually will be released to return to the community; this equates to more than 700,000 released prisoners each year in the United States (Morani, Wiloff, Linhorst, & Bratton, 2011). Due to shifting priorities in the criminal justice system since the 1970s, not only has there been a six-fold increase in released prisoners, but they also have more and different needs than the ex-prisoners of the past (Petersilia, 2004). Prisoners of the last few decades have served longer sentences, with fewer rehabilitation programs, and are less likely to receive parole services while transitioning to the community (Petersilia, 2004).

Longer sentences mean they have spent more time away from friends and family, weakening ties to the community and making it more difficult to reintegrate upon release. Lack of in prison programming and no parole means prisoners are not being rehabilitated – they do not have the opportunity to learn new pro-social skills and attitudes, or to finish their education and learn vocational skills. Additionally, returning prisoners have higher rates of substance use, mental illness, and infectious diseases than the general population (Lattimore, Steffey, & Visher, 2010) and have a destabilizing effect on the communities they are returned to (Seiter & Kadeila, 2003). 

Currently, around 67% of released prisoners will be re-arrested within 3 years, with 50% of re-arrestees returning to prison (Morani et al., 2011). These factors indicate a need for reentry programming focused on the transition from prison to community. This paper will review several studies of reentry programs to determine what types of programs show promise for helping prisoners transition.

Defining Reentry Programs

Seiter and Kadela (2003) define a reentry program as any prison program that is a) focused on the transition out of prison and into the community and b) begins treatment in the prison with links to community aftercare. Petersilia (2004) prefers a broader definition of reentry programming as any activity that prepares prisoners to live a safe and crime-free life upon return to the community. However, most reentry literature agrees that the goals of reentry programming should be to lower rates of recidivism and to help prisoners reintegrate into their community. 

This includes strengthening bonds with friends and family, finding stable housing and employment, attending substance abuse programs, and obtaining any necessary medical and mental health treatments (Seiter & Kadela, 2003; Solomon, Johnson, Travis, & McBride, 2004). 

Petersilia (2004) reviewed several psychological and sociological studies on “what works” in corrections and determined that the ideal reentry program would be community based, last at least six months, focus on high-risk offenders as determined by actuarial assessments, use cognitive behavioral methods, match individual offenders to appropriate counselors and techniques, include vocational training, and begin while the offender was still in prison. She also highlights the fact that most studies of reentry programs only focus on recidivism rates although there are other outcomes related to reintegration that should also be evaluated.

Challenges Faced by Returning Prisoners – Project Re-Connect

Social factors that influence an ex-prisoner’s reintegration include: finding a place to live, finding a job, renewing relationships with friends and family, desistance from substance use, desistance from crime, and meeting any parole conditions (Lattimore et al., 2010; Morani et al., 2011; Seiter & Kadela, 2003; Petersilia, 2004). In 2007, St. Louis launched Project Re-Connect in an effort to meet the needs of reentering prisoners. Project Re-Connect allocated $1,000,000 in funding for reentry services. Inmates who had completed their full sentence were eligible to volunteer for the program, which would provide them with $3000 to spend on services and 6 months of case management (Morani et al. 2011). 

Program participants were given a list of potential needs and were asked to identify which they felt were most pressing. Most participants expressed a need for help with transportation, clothing, food, housing, education/vocational training, mentoring, and medical needs (Morani et al., 2011). Three-thousand dollars was not enough to meet all of the ex-prisoners’ expressed needs. The largest amounts of money were spent on transportation, rent and utilities, and clothing, with very little funding allocated to medical and mental health needs. 

The follow-up study for Project Re-Connect does not measure recidivism, instead tracking the above social outcomes that are believed to impact reintegration. The program was successful in helping participants find stable housing, jobs, and substance abuse treatment; it also demonstrated that prisoners understand their own needs and that some will opt to participate if reentry services are offered (Morani et al., 2011). However, the prisoners who volunteered for Project Re-Connect were low-risk offenders, which both violates the risk principle (Petersilia, 2004) and suggests that the prisoners most in need of reentry services may be less motivated or may not understand their needs as well as lower risk offenders.

The Serious Violent Offender Reentry Initiative

Project Re-Connect addressed many of the same needs as the various programs implemented under 2002’s Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI), which provided grants to most US states for reentry programming (Lattimore et al., 2010).  A review of several SVORI programs found that participants tended to have a history of both criminal behavior and substance use, lacked education and employment skills, and had justice involved friends and family, all of which puts them at higher risk for reoffending. 

The SVORI programs provided a limited number of services based on individual assessments of need, however participants reported that they did not receive all promised services and that access to services declined after release (Lattimore et al., 2010). Perhaps because of this incomplete implementation, recidivism rates were not significantly different for program participants compared to non-participating releases. Participation in SVORI programs was associated with moderate improvement in other outcomes such as substance use, housing, employment, and self-reported criminal behavior (Lattimore et al., 2010).

The study authors make a compelling argument for why moderate improvements in reintegration may not equate to improvements in recidivism. For example, to effect greater than a 10% improvement in recidivism via employment programming, it would require at a minimum: a base rate of 40% employment for non-participants, a 50% improvement in employment rate after participation, and for employment to cause a 50% reduction in recidivism (Lattimore et al., 2010). Because reentry programs do not result in such dramatic improvements for participants, the effect of social improvements on recidivism will necessarily be small. Additionally, better program fidelity may result in better recidivism reduction.

An earlier review of SVORI programs found that, controlling for risk factors, program participants were 60% less likely to be re-arrested if they completed all recommended programming (Bouffard & Bergeron, 2006). This finding was based on a comparison of programs with three phases: beginning in prison, a transition phase, and continuing into the community. Participants were also matched with services based on need for substance abuse treatment, mental health care, and education (Bouffard & Bergeron, 2006).

The study found that SVORI participants were referred to significantly more programs than non-participants, but completed a significantly smaller proportion of them. Participants were significantly more likely to be referred to certain types of programs, including: substance abuse treatment, anger management, parenting programs, cognitive programs, mental health treatment, and education (Bouffard & Bergeron, 2006). Although these programs address the most pressing needs of returning offenders, it appears that there may be a limit to the number of programs ex-prisoners can be expected to attend. Given that participants who completed their programming were dramatically less likely to be re-arrested, it may be important for future reentry programs not to overload participants with too many treatments at the same time.

Other Transitional Programming

Several types of reentry program that focus on just one identified type of need have shown promise. A review of 32 program evaluations found that many reentry programs can help ease the transition back to the community and may impact recidivism rates (Solomon et al., 2003). The programs were all focused specifically on transition and began in prisons with follow-up care in the community, and the evaluations were rated using the Maryland Scale of Scientific Methods (MSSM; Sherman et al., 1998). 

Results indicated that vocational training and work programs improved readiness for work and lowered rates of recidivism, though not significantly (Solomon et al., 2003). Drug treatment programs, including in-prison therapeutic communities, led to significantly lower rates of substance use and recidivism, as well as higher likelihood of post-prison employment (Solomon et al., 2003). Ex-prisoners who transitioned through halfway houses were not significantly less likely to re-offend, but did commit less serious offenses than comparison groups and had an easier transition (Solomon et al., 2003). 

Programs targeted at violent offenders and sex offenders showed promise, but require further evaluation with better scientific rigor in addition to further program funding (Solomon et al., 2003). Finally, educational programs were successful in improving educational attainment, but did not impact recidivism (Solomon et al., 2003). It should be noted that the studies included in the review varied widely in MSSM scores, meaning that further evaluation is necessary to understand how effective different programs may be. However, the initial evaluations suggest that many different types of programs can impact recidivism if properly implemented.


After reviewing the evaluations of several different types of reentry programs, most of them show at least some promise for helping ex-prisoners reintegrate. However, the variety of both programs and outcome evaluations demonstrate that there is also very little agreement about the goals of reentry programming. 

Some programs have focused mainly on social outcomes related to community reintegration – employment, housing, family relationships – which may be indirectly related to recidivism (Lattimore et al., 2010; Morani et al., 2011; Seiter & Kadela, 2003; Petersilia, 2004). As described by Lattimore and colleagues (2010), it would require dramatic improvements in these reintegration outcomes to significantly improve recidivism rates. 

Programs that focus on improvement in a single area of need tend to show promise for lowering rates of recidivism, depending on how well they adhere to the principles of effective programming (Seiter & Kadela, 2003). These include targeting moderate and high-risk offenders, duration of at least 6 months, appropriate intensity, matching participants to programs based on individual responsivity principles, and addressing appropriate needs (e.g., education, employment, housing, drug use, mental health; Petersilia, 2004). 

Additionally, prisoners have demonstrated that they understand their own reentry needs and are motivated to participate in programs when offered. However, high-risk prisoners may need additional intervention to encourage participation – voluntary participants tended to be lower risk and better educated than non-participants (Morani et al., 2011). It may also be important to consider the number of programs that ex-prisoners are expected to complete. Although participants who complete their reentry programs are significantly less likely to recidivate than non-participants, they are also less likely to complete the programs – possibly because they lack the motivation, the skills, or the resources to finish several concurrent programs (Bouffard & Bergeron, 2006). 

In general, it seems that some reentry programming is better than no reentry programming, but considerably more research is required to understand fully what will best lead to both improved social outcomes and decreased recidivism.


Bouffard, J. A., & Bergeron, L. E. (2006). Reentry works: The implementation and effectiveness of a serious and violent offender reentry initiative. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 44(2-3), 1-29.

Lattimore, P. K., Steffey, D. M., & Visher, C. A. (2010). Prisoner reentry in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Victims and Offenders, 5(3), 253-267.

Morani, N. M., Wikoff, N., Linhorst, D. M., & Bratton, S. (2011). A description of the self-identified needs, service expenditures, and social outcomes of participants of a prisoner-reentry program. The Prison Journal, 91(3), 347-365.

Petersilia, J. (2004). What works in prisoner reentry-reviewing and questioning the evidence. Federal Probation, 68, 4.

Seiter, R. P., & Kadela, K. R. (2003). Prisoner reentry: What works, what does not, and what is promising. Crime & Delinquency, 49(3), 360-388.

Solomon, A. L., Johnson, K. D., Travis, J., McBride, E. C. (2004). From prison to work: The employment dimensions of prisoner reentry. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.


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