There are many misconceptions and half-truths about what makes a successful re-entry. Fortunately, there is a lot of research in this area.
Hundreds of people come back to our community every year after long periods of incarceration. Although incarcerating offenders can keep people safer, nearly everyone comes back into the community. After one has served their time, how can we make a path to restoration that keeps us safe, encourages re-entrants and strengthens families?
When assessing the challenges a re-entrant faces, it helps to know what the risk factors are. From research, we know that there are nine major risk factors, many of which you can probably guess and a few that you may have never heard of. The most commonly known are substance abuse, employment, education and family stability. However, it is very likely that the most impactful risk factors are the least known and most misunderstood.
The popularly held solutions, listed above, are referred to by researchers as secondary risk factors. Although important, research shows that they have little impact on whether a person goes back to prison. They are family, education, employment, substance abuse and a lesser known factor: pro-social leisure activities.
The areas that are the most significant indicators of success are anti-social attitudes — often referred to as criminal thinking patterns — anti-social peers, anti-social personality and prior history of anti-social behavior. The evidence-based interventions used to reduce risk are aimed at reshaping thoughts and values, influencing who re-entrants engage with on a daily basis, creating strategies for reducing impulsivity and aggression, and improving poor problem-solving skills. These categories are generally referred to as criminogenic needs and are treated as primary issues.
Helping a person view their world in a more pro-social framework is the most critical of all interventions and has the best opportunity for long-term success.
The old idea of getting someone a job to reduce recidivism has been shown to be statistically invalid. Employment does not impact anti-social thinking patterns.
Heather Bennett, program coordinator of Kenosha Vocational Ministry, says, “We used to think that helping someone get a job was the best strategy for reducing recidivism. Now we know that is simply not true.” She sums it up this way: “Staying focused on criminogenic needs reduces the risk of new criminal activity. Taking care of non-criminogenic needs, like housing and medical care, reduces significant barriers but they do not reduce risk. For long-term success, our focus has to be aimed at reducing risk.”
To say it another way, reducing criminogenic needs is transformational, while meeting noncriminogenic needs is transactional and unlikely to reduce the risk of going back to prison. In the context of risk, what a person believes has a much greater impact on their lives than the impact made by simply addressing barriers.
I believe this is true for all of us.
James Schatzman is the executive director of Kenosha Vocational Ministry.