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4 elements of successful reentry programs for inmates

March 31, 2021
A group of adults sit at a shared desk with books and papers in front of them while taking part in a reentry program.

John and Tom are both released from prison on the same day in separate parts of the country. Both have access to reintegration programs which help them through the transition by aiding with job training, housing, and access to community resources. John successfully finds a job with the help of his program. Three years later, he has adjusted well and hasn’t returned to prison.

Tom has a rockier path. After his transitional job term comes to a close six months after his release, he no longer has resources from his transitional program. Without a support system, Tom feels alone and is convicted of another crime. Unfortunately, Tom’s story is all too familiar, as about 50% of all individuals with prior offenses in the United States will be arrested again within eight years of their initial release.

Public sector agencies like yours can provide the resources and support individuals like Tom need to create a successful reentry plan and build a new life for themselves. You can improve your agency’s reentry program by first understanding why these programs matter, then implementing evidence-based best practices. 

Why reentry programs are important

Huge strides have been made in using research to create better rehabilitation programs for individuals in the justice system.

With the 2007 Second Chance Act, which provides federal grants for programs and services that aim to reduce recidivism (repeat offenses) and improve the livelihoods of people who were previously incarcerated, there has been an increasing interest in understanding what makes reentry programs successful. 

Incarceration costs around $35,000 per person per year at the state level, and reducing rates of recidivism can help lower government expenses at both the state and federal level. By implementing a successful reentry program, your public agency can make a difference not only in the lives of the formerly incarcerated individuals you work with, but in your community as a whole. 

4 elements of successful reentry programs 

Public agencies and partner organizations can utilize their resources more effectively to create reentry programs for incarcerated individuals with the best possible outcomes. The following strategies can help you better support the prison population by cultivating a successful, evidence-based reentry program.

1. Start reentry programs before release dates 

Many organizations and government agencies have predominantly focused on release programs, rather than pre-release programs which have significant benefits. As the Federal Bureau of Prisons philosophy states, “release preparation begins the first day of incarceration.” The Federal Bureau of Prisons also suggests intensifying release preparation at least 18 months prior to release to help incarcerated individuals focus on their transition. 

Successful reentry programs for incarcerated individuals rely on more than just helping individuals find jobs and housing after incarceration. It also requires helping them embrace a positive outlook on life by addressing mental health issues, providing mentoring, offering educational opportunities and job training, and connecting them with community resources. Most, if not all, of these things can and should begin long before a person’s release date.

Currently incarcerated individuals may have limited access to reentry programs themselves, so outreach is critical for your public agency. By working with jails and prisons, reentry programs can reach more incarcerated individuals, support them throughout their time, and lay a better foundation for their transition.  

2. Provide fair treatment 

A one-size-fits-all approach to reentry will rarely work for public agencies and social service agencies. Rather, agencies should strive to adjust their approach based on specific individuals’ needs to provide fair treatment for all of their participants. 

A comprehensive report released by the Council for State Governments Justice Center makes a strong case that employment programs should move beyond traditional services. The council recommends addressing individuals’ underlying attitudes about crime and work, making them more likely to succeed in getting and keeping jobs and less likely to serve more time. 

The council also recommends individualizing treatment plans and job readiness screenings while incarcerated individuals are still in prison. With this personalization, program workers were able to increase incarcerated individuals’ motivation, enroll them in educational groups, and build rapport with participants. Having program workers increase their involvement in the prison also helped motivate individuals to continue the program after their transition. 

Not all individuals who were previously incarcerated share the same risk levels or needs. Organizations can use guidance in the First Step Act of 2018: Risk and Needs Assessment to accurately assess these attributes and deliver customized help. 

3. Make changes in the probation framework 

According to the National Institute of Corrections, the Risk-Needs-Responsivity (RNR) framework can reduce recidivism by tailoring probation programs to the personal needs of previously incarcerated individuals. 

Programs should first assess individual’s risks based on factors such as their age, history of arrest, and severity of offense. A needs assessment survey evaluates any ongoing behavioral treatment or mental health history that may increase chances of recidivism. After these assessments, programs can alter the intensity of treatment or involvement each individual requires. 

Models like Hawaii’s Opportunity for Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) use the framework for probation and post-incarceration monitoring. HOPE uses more immediate consequences like jail time to discourage breaking parole, whereas other programs may use a strike system or have delayed consequences. HOPE’s method helps discourage parole violations for those at higher risk of recidivism.  

Since more than half of recidivism is a result of technical violations of parole, this is an important part of the reentry process to examine. By trying new methods, tracking efforts and outcomes, and holding organizations accountable, your agency can move toward a system of reentry programs for incarcerated individuals that serve their function while minimizing negative side effects.

4. Implement evidence-based policies

With the advent of tracking tools and software, government agencies can now implement national standards, resulting in increased reporting and improved outcomes from their programs and community partners.

By taking an evidence-based approach now, you can save states millions of dollars or more in the long run and truly help incarcerated individuals get back on their feet again.

A final note about successful reentry programs

With research-guided reentry programs, we can begin preparing incarcerated individuals for reentry as soon as they become eligible during their sentence. By tailoring programs and the intensity of involvement individuals may need, we can help people like John and Tom successfully reenter society with fewer bumps along the way.

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