A longitudinal study by the U.S. Department of Justice that followed released inmates from 30 different states found that within three years of release, 68 percent were arrested for a new crime. That number jumped to 79 percent after six years and to 83 percent after nine years.
This begs the question, what works to reduce recidivism?
The answer to that question is highly complex. However, there are proven strategies for reducing recidivism in juveniles and adults. Many of the most effective approaches involve reducing recidivism through education.
Let’s take a closer look at four proven ways to reduce recidivism.
Improving the Defendant’s Motivational Factors
One of the first points at which recidivism can be reduced is during the sentencing phase of a defendant’s case.
According to a National Institutes of Corrections study on evidence-based practices, building trust between the defendant and the judge, their attorney, probation agent, therapist, and other stakeholders can be a crucial component of changing the defendant’s behavior.
The study specifically points to the effectiveness of trust-building and motivation-building for defendants in drug courts. In instances in which the defendant had personal interactions with the judge, the defendant’s engagement and participation in the sentencing process improved. This, in turn, promoted higher levels of motivation to alter the behaviors that landed them in court in the first place.
In other words, relationship-building and demonstrating an interest in the defendant’s ability to be successful helps reduce the defendant’s feelings of hopelessness and ambivalence to the process. Likewise, it encourages them to take an active part in the proceedings and can result in improved chances of avoiding incarceration in the future.
Early Assessment of Risks and Needs
When considering what works to reduce recidivism, one must begin by assessing the risks and needs of the inmate.
First, it must be determined which inmates are at the highest risk of re-offending. This can be done via an objective risk assessment. Furthermore, inmates that are identified as being at risk of re-offending should undergo a criminogenic needs assessment, in which factors are identified that could have contributed to their criminal behavior. These might include:
- Prior criminal activity
- Alcohol or drug dependency
- Mental health issues
- Belonging to an anti-social peer group
By determining who is at risk and developing a unique needs assessment profile, staff members at jails and prisons can more effectively develop a rehabilitation program that helps prepare each inmate for release.
This type of early assessment has been suggested at the federal and state level. For example, the Illinois Community Safety and Reentry Commission recommended that each inmate goes through a “Reception, Assessment, and Classification” period during which their risks and needs would be evaluated and a personalized reentry program would be developed.
Incorporating Education Into Incarceration
Having educational opportunities in jails and prisons is paramount for reducing recidivism in juveniles and adults alike.
A 2013 meta-analysis of educational programs for adult inmates found that reducing recidivism through education works very well – inmates who took part in educational programs while incarcerated had a 43 percent lower chance of recidivism than inmates that did not participate in educational programs.
Furthermore, the meta-analysis, which was sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, revealed that each dollar spent on education for inmates saved four to five dollars on the costs of incarcerating an inmate again later on.
Even very basic education, like adult literacy and basic skills, can significantly reduce the rate of recidivism. Allowing inmates to finish their high school diplomas, learn a trade and technical skills, and pursue post-secondary educational opportunities while incarcerated can greatly reduce recidivism as well.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons has implemented this reform into its system, complete with individual education assessments for incoming inmates to determine the type and level of instruction they need to be successful.
Improving Substance Abuse Treatment
Drug offenses account for one of the most common reasons for incarceration across the United States. In Wyoming, for example, 17 percent of arrests in 2017 were for drug-related offenses. And while each of those arrests didn’t result in incarceration, it’s still a significant number of detainees with serious mental health needs.
While reducing recidivism through education is a popular and effective approach, so too is improving substance abuse treatment for inmates. Substance abuse treatment programs are among the most effective in reducing recidivism.
Whether treatment takes the form of a deferred sentence while the defendant is in inpatient drug treatment, or as intensive treatment while in prison, rates of recidivism for these offenders are reduced by double-digits compared to the general prison population.
So, when evaluating what works to reduce recidivism, the best approaches are to intervene early and provide substantive support while incarcerated. For the best results, that support should continue for the parolee after they are reintroduced to society.
Sean Jackson April 2020
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