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68 Fed. Probation 4 (2004)
What Works in Prisoner Reentry - Reviewing and Questioning the Evidence

handle is hein.journals/fedpro68 and id is 80 raw text is: Joan Petersilia
University of California, Irvine

MORE THAN 600,000 individuals will
leave state prisons and return home this year.
That is 1,600 a day, and a sixfold increase
in prisoner releases since 1970. Of course,
inmates have always been released from
prison, and corrections officials have long
struggled with how to facilitate successful
transitions. But the current situation is decid-
edly different. The increase in number of
releasees has stretched parole services beyond
their limits, and officials worry about what
assistance can be provided at release. Research
confirms that returning prisoners need more
help than in the past, yet resources have
diminished. Returning prisoners will have
served longer prison sentences than in the
past, be more disconnected from family and
friends, have a higher prevalence of untreated
substance abuse and mental illness, and be
less educated and employable than their pre-
decessors. Legal and practical barriers facing
ex-offenders have also increased, affecting
their employment, housing, and welfare eli-
gibility. Without help, many released inmates
quickly return to crime.
State and federal governments are trying
to provide help. Recent years have witnessed
an explosion of interest in the phenomenon
of prisoner reentry. Between 2001 and 2004,
the federal government allocated over $100
million to support the development of new
reentry programs in all 50 states. The Council
of State Governments, the American Cor-
rectional Association, The National Institute
of Corrections, The American Probation and
Parole Association, and The National Gov-
ernors Association have each created special
task forces to work on the reentry issue-as
have most State Departments of Correc-

tions. President Bush even highlighted the
prisoner reentry issue in his 2004 State of the
Union Address-the first time anyone ever
remembers a president including concern for
ex-convicts in such a major speech. President
Bush spoke sympathetically about the dif-
ficulties prisoners face in reintegration, stat-
ing that, America is the land of the second
chances, and when the gates of the prison
open, the path ahead should lead to a better
life.' He proposed a four-year $300 million
initiative to assist faith-based and community
organizations to help returning inmates.
No one doubts that interest in prisoner
reentry is high, that money is flowing, and
that well-meaning people want to implement
programs to assist returning inmates. But
the $64,000 question still remains: Which
programs should government agencies, non-
profit organizations, and faith-based com-
munities invest in? In short, what programs
work in prisoner reentry? As states confront
massive budget shortfalls, it is critical that we
invest in proven programs.
Asking the what works? question of
correctional programs is not new. In fact,
it has become rather a cottage industry.
The correctional literature now contains
dozens of what works? articles and books.
The articles summarize research based on
metanalysis (the quantitative analyses of
the results of prior research studies), cost-
benefit analysis, synthetic reviews, literature
reviews, expert thinking, and clinical trials.
The conclusions are then translated into
best practices, evidence-based principles,
and programs that 'work,' 'don't work or
'are promising This literature is scattered
in criminology, sociology, and psychology

publications-although most of it exists in
agency and government reports.
How can a correctional administrator
make sense of it all? The analysis is frequently
difficult to sort out, even for this author, who
is a seasoned corrections researcher. But the
question what works in reentry programs?
is too important and timely to leave unad-
dressed. The author reviewed this literature
to condense its most important findings for
correctional practitioners. The first section
summarizes findings of the published lit-
erature as they pertain to reentry programs.
The second section questions the existing
evidence and urges a broader conversation
about current methods, outcome measures,
and privileging practitioner expertise.
What Constitutes a Prisoner
Reentry Program?
To answer, what works in reentry programs?
we must first define a reentry program. Here
lies the first difficulty: what exactly should
qualify as a prison reentry program?
Travis and Visher (2005) of the Urban
Institute define prisoner reentry as the inev-
itable consequence of incarceration. They
write, With the exception of those who die
of natural consequences or are executed,
everyone placed in confinement is eventu-
ally released. Reentry is not an option. In
their view, reentry is not a legal status nor a
program but a process. They write: Certainly,
the pathways of reentry can be influenced by
such factors as the prisoner's participation
in drug treatment, literacy classes, religious
organizations, or prison industries, but reen-
try is not a result of program participation.
In other words, every aspect of correctional


Volume 68 Number 2

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