A call for evidence-based policies for the reintegration of ex-offenders

A call for evidence-based policies for the reintegration of ex-offenders

Two people sit opposite each other at a desk, reading documents

Policies and programmes that support the re-entry of formerly incarcerated individuals into society should be designed using evidence-based research, argue DPhil candidate Helen Kosc and Professor Dave Kirk in a chapter recently published in The Oxford Handbook of Evidence-Based Crime and Justice Policy.

Prison-leavers face multiple complex challenges when reintegrating into society upon release, including securing employment, finding somewhere to live, and building meaningful relationships.

This is largely because, as Kosc and Kirk point out, this population has, on average, lower levels of education and work experience, and higher rates of mental illness and substance abuse – risk factors which are further exacerbated by a criminal record.

With some research suggesting that ex-offenders are only half to one-third as likely as non-offenders to be considered by employers, we are left unsurprised that 42% of individuals released from custody in the UK are reconvicted of a crime within one year of release.

Policies and practices are in place to recognise and moderate re-entry challenges in a way that encourages successful community reintegration and reduces the risk of re-offending.

These include programmes that offer social support, employment opportunities, housing, cognitive-behavioural therapy and mental health treatment, and substance abuse treatment, along with ‘wrap-around’ services that aim to serve multiple needs at once.

However, as this chapter demonstrates, very few of these programmes, which are provided by both governments and non-profit organisations, have been developed using evidence-based research or even rigorously evaluated to measure their success.

Indeed, they may even have harmful unintended consequences for their participants – with some policies increasing the likelihood of reoffending and proving ineffective at improving reintegration.

The chapter calls for the production of robust and replicable knowledge that can be easily utilised by policymakers, arguing:

With the relatively little empirical evaluation of re-entry policies that presently exists, it is imperative that criminologists adopt experimental or quasi-experimental evaluations of existent and future re-entry programs to add valuable information to a thin empirical literature.

The paper also highlights examples of successful, empirically-inspired policies. One such policy is inspired by Professor Kirk’s natural experiment on residential relocation, demonstrating that prison-leavers who return to the same addresses or neighbourhoods as they previously resided in are more likely to re-offend.

Using evidence gained from ex-offenders forced to move to a different neighbourhood due to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, Professor Kirk found that those who moved to a new area were 13% less likely to be re-incarcerated in the eight years following their release.

This inspired the Maryland Opportunities through Vouchers Experiment (MOVE), a randomised housing mobility programme for the formerly incarcerated, implemented in cooperation with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Two groups of recently released individuals were offered housing subsidies, with one group returning to where they had resided previously, and the other moving to a location at least 40 miles from their former homes. The programme’s pilot suggested that subsidised and stable housing, particularly if located away from a former area of residence, could substantially reduce an individual’s likelihood of re-offending.

This chapter comes as Kosc is conducting her own large-scale, long-term ethnographic study of prison resettlement here in the UK. Overseen by Kirk, in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner, she has successfully mapped the resettlement pathways of 150 prison-leavers over 18 months.

Much like Kosc and Kirk advocated for in this chapter, she hopes to use her research to improve knowledge and application of prison reintegration policies here in the United Kingdom. 

You can read more about Helen Kosc's research here.

Original Publication

Kosc, H., and Kirk, D.S. (2024). 'Making Prisoner Re-entry Evidence-Based', in Brandon C. Welsh, Steven N. Zane, and Daniel P. Mears (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Evidence-Based Crime and Justice Policy, Oxford Handbooks.