Prisoner reentry programs have sparked great interest in recent years — among academic scholars, policy analysts, and politicians alike. In 2008, President George Bush signed a bill, the “Second Chance Act,” which authorized a four-year, $400 million initiative to provide transitional housing, job training and placement services, and mentoring for prisoners and newly released convicts. The Obama Administration, meanwhile, has called for a further expansion of reentry programs nationwide. Despite apparently broad and bipartisan support for such endeavors, “there is still little rigorous scientific evidence to guide jurisdictions in developing reentry programs to enhance public safety,” write Kennedy School researchers Anthony Braga and David Hureau and their Rutgers University colleague Anne Piehl.
In order to address that information gap and provide some actual data, Braga, Hureau, and Piehl decided to study the effectiveness of an innovative and ambitious program, the Boston Reentry Initiative (BRI), which stands out from most efforts of this sort by virtue of its focus on the most violent jail inmates, who will pose the greatest threat to society upon their release. “Most reentry programs avoid this high-risk population, choosing instead to provide services to those most likely to succeed,” notes Braga, a chief policy advisor to the Boston Police Department. “I was pleased to learn that the BRI led to about a 30 percent reduction in recidivism among the most difficult offenders to work with in jail — young men with a history of violence who were often gang members and almost always returning to high-risk, disadvantaged neighborhoods.”
How did the BRI achieve these ends? A key to the initiative, and a likely contributor to its success, is its development of a customized “transition accountability plan,” which involves a range of services tailored to individual needs. These services include education, vocational training, and treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues. Mentors meet regularly with inmates — starting soon after they enter jail and continuing until 12 to 18 months after their release — to assist them in lining up housing, jobs, and transportation while helping them resist the negative aspects of street life.
Although the observed drop in recidivism was significant, Braga sees room for improvement. One problem is that only 21 percent of BRI participants found a job in their first year out of jail. The program would be even more effective if it could, somehow, improve the likelihood of participants’ finding work during their first few months out of jail. The longer an individual remains unemployed, the greater the risk he will fall back into a life of crime. “This problem, however, is bigger than the BRI,” Braga acknowledges. “Indeed, there is a strong movement in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the United States to reform criminal history data access laws so that returning inmates will have a better chance of securing a job.”
He believes that the results are generalizable beyond the population focused on by the Boston program. “While state and federal prisoners serve longer sentences, on average, than those in jail (including the BRI participants), they all face similar challenges upon returning to the community,” Braga says. “I think that robust reentry programs should be operating in all jails and prisons and be available to a variety of offenders — and not just be limited to the most violent cases.”
One might reasonably ask whether our society could afford an across-the-board effort like this. But given that keeping an offender incarcerated costs at least $45,000 a year, Braga says, “I would argue that it is less expensive to prevent crime from happening in the first place and to keep former offenders back in the community rather than seeing them return to prison or jail.” — by Steve Nadis