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Offender reentry: a returning or reformed criminal?

Perhaps the most vexing problem facing the criminal justice system in the United States today is how to deal with offenders who have "paid their debt to society" and are released from a structured correctional setting back into the community. Rarely does society lock up a person and "throw away the key." Instead, 95 percent of all offenders sent to state prison facilities will be released and returned to the civilian population. (1) How to address this situation has more important consequences for society than the ongoing debate about whether a prison sentence should be punitive or treatment oriented. While incarcerated, the offender, at the very least, is "warehoused" away for the protection of the general public. Upon release, however, the community will be confronted, based on policy decisions made and implemented, by either a returning criminal or a reformed offender.


American Penology

Concern for the real purpose behind a court-imposed sentence in response to a criminal offense is not a new feature on the American political landscape. Rather, the debate goes back to the earliest period of this country's existence. A brief look at the history of penology in this country can confirm this observation. In 1787, Benjamin Franklin's Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, home was the site for the first meeting of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (PSAMPP). At the time of this gathering, local jails--basically holding pens that made no attempt to separate prisoners by age, sex, or offense--housed the majority of incarcerated persons. Upon adjudication of their cases, most of those convicted received sentences that entailed some form of corporal punishment or hard labor and removal from the jail population. PSAMPP members felt that this treatment of offenders was misguided and, by design, failed to correct the unacceptable behavior on the part of the prisoner. As a solution, they lobbied the government of Pennsylvania to construct Eastern State Penitentiary, a facility that opened in 1829 as the first modern-day prison. Behind its drive to build Eastern State, PSAMPP had as its goal: "The Penitentiary would not simply punish, but move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. The method was a Quaker-inspired system of isolation from other prisoners, with labor." (2)

To inspire their charges, Pennsylvania, at the time, built possibly the most expensive building in the United States. Equipped with central heat and running water when the White House still used wood-burning stoves and latrines, the penitentiary represented an attempt to positively affect the lives of inmates. In reality, PSAMPP's well-intentioned effort at reform led to the creation of the first "supermax" facility in the world. For 23 hours a day, inmates were confined in individual cells that had small, private exercise yards that they could or had to go into for 1 hour per day. Staff members passed food to the inmates through a slot in the cell door. Inmates had no contact with each other, and the staff restricted conversation with them to the amount necessary to operate the prison. When prisoners had to move around inside the institution, they wore hoods over their heads and faces. Eventually, inmates could exercise in a common yard together, but, for many years, they had to wear a hood with eyeholes to limit familiarity within the inmate community. In addition, the institution restricted reading material to the Bible. All of these measures were put in place to help inmates meditate and reflect on the errors they had made. PSAMPP members felt that upon reflection on their transgressions, inmates would become enlightened, which would lead to a resolve to make positive changes in their lifestyles and behaviors. Eastern State modified these practices over the years as new theories on penology altered the beliefs of those working in the field of corrections. The facility itself served as a penitentiary for 142 years, finally closing in 1971. (3)


The history of Eastern State Penitentiary illustrates how American society, in over 200 years, has failed to reach an agreement on what it hopes to accomplish by sentencing offenders to prison. Given this historical background, it is time to make use of modern research methods to identify and implement strategies that show promise in successfully reintegrating offenders into society as productive members.

Recidivism Identified

Recent research by the Bureau of Justice Statistics helps to demonstrate the need to develop effective measures designed to assist recently released inmates. (4) The study examined prisoners released from 15 states, which returned a total of 272,111 of their charges to free society in 1994. This number represented approximately two-thirds of all inmates freed from custody that year. The researchers focused on four factors that they felt identified recidivism: "rearrest, reconviction, resentence to prison, and return to prison with or without a new sentence." (5) Their findings proved disturbing. Within 3 years, 67.5 percent of released inmates were charged with a new crime, 46.9 percent were found guilty of their latest charge, and 25.4 percent were sent to a correctional facility in response to their new offense. Violations of release conditions (technical violations, not new offenses) led to additional incarceration time for many inmates released in 1994. Considering all of the factors, a total of 51.8 percent of the inmates released in 1994 were back in prison by 1997. This human tragedy is felt not only by the inmates, their families, and friends but by society as a whole. The most obvious cost of this failure to gain compliance with societies' mores lies in the extraordinary expense of incarceration, $49,007,000 by all levels of government in 1999. (6) The victims of these offenders, however, pay a price not so readily apparent. The study estimated that before returning to prison, these offenders committed approximately 744,000 crimes between 1994 and 1997.

Changes in Sentencing

By the middle of the 20th century, most states had a parole board responsible for administering an early release policy. Courts generally gave out sentences for a range of years. For example, a felony conviction for a nonviolent theft might be 2 to 4 years, instead of a set time, such as 30 months. Parole board members held the power to decide whether an inmate went free after 2 years of imprisonment or had to serve the equivalent of 4 years. The system, by its very nature, was subjective and prone to abuse. Public displeasure led to reforms and a switch to determinate sentencing, with an equally applicable formula that allowed for early release based on "good time" earned by the inmate. A deficiency for the new procedure was a loss of postrelease control formerly held by the parole boards. When the board granted release, it set terms that parole officers administered. With the advent of determinate sentencing, however, more inmates began serving their entire sentences, then were released without control or assistance. An unintended consequence of this procedure has been a dramatic reduction in funds available for parole officers with a resultant proportionate decrease in the control of ex-inmates at a time when appropriate direction could have a positive impact on their lives.

Truth-in-sentencing laws, which several states have adopted, have further complicated issues surrounding offender reentry. In many jurisdictions, violent criminals must serve at least 85 percent of their court-imposed sentences before being considered for parole or release. (7) Other states, such as Indiana, make use of determinate sentences where inmates know that if they do not commit any transgressions while incarcerated, they will be released after serving 50 percent of their original sentences. These states consider the released inmates as having served their time and do not subject them to any additional monitoring or control. But, these are individuals who, based on prior behaviors, society has a strong interest in, either for rehabilitation or close supervision. In attempting to ensure punishment and fairness, legislative bodies have made decisions that did not take into account the fact that once these individuals have served their time, they will be released into the same neighborhoods they came from to again prey upon the citizens who live there.

One researcher, addressing the topic of how to deal with reentry, said, "The answer to the question, 'If not parole, then what?' is typically, 'More prison.' Yet asking a different question--'How should we manage the reentry of large numbers of people who have been imprisoned for a long time?'--might elicit a different answer." (8) He continued with what has become a common theme in enlightened discussions on the topic of reentry, "They all come back." (9) He suggested reassigning some of the functions formerly performed by parole boards. (10) Among the items to consider is a body charged with controlling the actions of inmates after release, as well as monitoring their behavior prior to release to ensure that they have received the tools to become successful when they return to free society. While this approach would seem to conflict with the sentencing reforms enacted in response to complaints concerning the old parole structure, the number of former inmates being rearrested so quickly after their release confirms the need for fine-tuning the system.

Reentry by Offense Category

Many Americans are slowly starting to realize that offenders need help to succeed and not reoffend upon their release from correctional facilities. Society long has recognized its responsibility to care for delinquent youths because they are too immature to make decisions for themselves. Due to this, special programs exist in a number of jurisdictions to work with juvenile offenders before and after their release. Now, the general public has begun to realize that many adult offenders lack the social skills necessary to become successful, contributing members of their communities. To help these individuals, many people have recognized the need to provide training and alternatives for those being released.

Citizens have demanded that at least two widely different classes of offenders incur special attention upon their release from incarceration. Interest in both groups has drawn considerable political attention, but for different reasons. An educated electorate voicing concern to appropriate legislative bodies can lead to the establishment of reentry programs. Depending upon the type of inmate targeted and the focus of the interest group, a reentry initiative developed in this manner may or may not offer the best chance for rehabilitation.

Sex offenders became the first to draw extensive public attention. Fear that released offenders would again prey upon those members of society least able to protect themselves led to several measures, including the National Sex Offender Registry. Also, in Kansas v. Hendricks, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that institutions may hold sexual offenders beyond their court-imposed sentence if they can demonstrate that inmates have displayed a mental condition that indicates their likelihood of committing new offenses upon their release. (11) Other efforts have occurred to ensure released inmates are tracked and given either treatment or additional punishment, whichever professionals deem as the more appropriate for their condition.

A second category of offenders warranting special consideration in the eyes of the public includes those sentenced for what some perceive as "minor" drug crimes. Based on information in the media and high-profile movies, many members of the community seem to believe that large numbers of incarcerated drug offenders have as their only real crime an addiction to an illegal substance. While some persons undoubtedly have been imprisoned for usage amounts of drugs, most of those serving time for simple drug possession offenses, in fact, were actively involved in some manner with the trafficking of illegal substances. (12) Numerous ways exist for a known drug dealer to end up charged with possession instead of dealing. The most common occurs when prosecutors, with police encouragement, allow a person to plead guilty to possession after selling drugs to a cooperating individual or informant. In such cases, a trade-off for the law enforcement community occurs--the identity of the witness, often an undercover officer, remains unknown, thereby protecting the witness and allowing the police to use that person again. Drug couriers that risk arrest for the profit gained by moving another's drugs from one point to another are among those convicted of simple possession. Others facing these charges include those caught in "whisper" stops where the informant or undercover officer arranges a drug deal and police intercept the dealer before the individual can reach the meeting spot. These few examples illustrate why the public and researchers need to become better informed about conditions in the drug enforcement field before accepting, at face value, that courts have imprisoned a large population of offenders for drug addictions.


Public concern has led to an acceptance of the need for drug treatment and for the increasing requirement for appropriate programs. Many offenders incarcerated for crimes not related to drugs either abuse or are addicted to an illegal substance. Effective screening by correctional personnel can identify those most in need of and receptive to treatment as a step to securing them placement in proper programs. The limited funding available for treatment programs, which occurs because no one can prove that criminal activity did not happen due to a specific intervention effort, drives the rationale behind referring only the best candidates for treatment. (13) In contrast, by their very nature, enforcement programs generate numbers of arrests and citizen contacts. Fiscal agents endeavoring to make effective use of available funds understandably are more comfortable with efforts that produce a verifiable result, usually numbers, as opposed to a successful outcome that remains difficult to prove.

Project RIO

Institutions have employed a wide variety of programs and ideas in recent times to either force ex-inmates to conform to societal norms or assist them in making the transition from prison to freedom. One such program is Project RIO, a state-funded and locally controlled effort in Texas.

In June 1998, the National Institute of Justice evaluated and reported on this effort. (14) Under the formal title of Re-Integration of Offenders, the project began in Texas during 1985 as an effort to reduce the recidivism rate for inmates released by state correctional facilities. A quick look at the number of offenders Texas must deal with can effectively illustrate the scope of the problem. In December 1996, for example, Texas correctional institutions housed more than 132,000 inmates. (15) Members of the Texas legislature agreed with the premise that without gainful employment and other steps to reintegrate them into society, ex-inmates likely will reoffend and a large percentage will return to prison. They approved funding for Project RIO in 1984 with implementation in 1985. Elected officials took an enlightened stance when they mandated that to receive funds, several agencies would have to collaborate on the effort. The Institutional and Parole Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Texas Workforce Commission, the state employment agency established in 1935 that successfully serves the entire state, equally share direction of the project. The size of the RIO agency--100 paid staff located in 62 sites serving 92 cities and towns--demonstrates the extent of the commitment. Moreover, itinerant service providers travel to towns where large numbers of parolees reside to provide service for rural areas. (16)

Inmates are introduced to RIO in a variety of ways. Upon entry into a correctional facility, each offender must complete an orientation process. During this introduction, project staff members provide new inmates with a brochure describing how Project RIO works and how it can benefit them. As an example, the school that provides vocational and technical training inside the prisons requires inmates who participate in any course to enroll in the project. Staff members from RIO make periodic attempts to recruit inmates through oral or video presentations and by bringing potential employers to the facilities. While processing out of institutions, inmates must attend a 30-minute orientation on RIO. Even if inmates fail to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the project upon release, they still can sign up later. This late sign-up often occurs because the ex-offender's parole officer makes a referral or a current or past participant in RIO assures the parolee that the program works.

Once inmates or parolees decide to take advantage of the benefits connected with Project RIO, they receive services tailored to fit their needs. Finding a job begins with a week of life-skills and job-search training. Program specialists then attempt to match ex-offenders with available positions and make calls to appropriate employers within the network of 12,000 companies that already have hired RIO participants. Project counselors realize the need to take a holistic approach to the problems and conditions that the ex-inmates face. For this reason, they provide ex-offenders with information on and assistance in obtaining community services, housing, medical care, and other resources for handling problematic issues. An important component of the program involves ongoing monitoring of the ex-offender's work performance and behavior, with timely intervention by parole or Project RIO workers before a problem reaches the level that will require reincarceration of the individual.

Overall then, how successful is the effort at keeping offenders from returning to prison? As the study of offenders released around the country during 1994 showed, by 1997, 51.8 percent had returned to prison. (17) This represents an enormous drain on public resources and a waste of potential contributions those imprisoned might make to society. Texas A&M University evaluated RIO in 1992 and judged the program a success. (18) Evaluators studied 1,200 inmates released that year and found that those who chose to participate in RIO had lower rates for both arrest and reincarceration. University researchers identified a number of factors that they believed had an effect on the ex-offender's ability to assimilate back into society. (19) The study then grouped subjects into categories of high, average, and low risk to obtain as much information as possible on the effectiveness. As might be expected, high-risk subjects had the most chance of being rear-rested. This held true regardless of status with RIO, but project subjects faired significantly better than non-RIO individuals, 48 percent as opposed to 57 percent. Although the difference in rearrest rates for average-risk, 30 percent versus 32 percent, and low-risk, 16 percent versus 19 percent, ex-offenders did not vary widely. In both categories, RIO participants did better than their counterparts not in the program.


Texas A&M University followed new cases filed against ex-offenders to conclusion and determined that Project RIO also had influenced the rate of incarceration for ex-offenders. Those individuals in the high-risk category were rearrested at a much higher rate than the other categories and, correspondingly, were imprisoned in a much greater percentage. RIO enrollees returned to prison less often than those who chose not to enter the program. Among those considered high risk, 23 percent from RIO as opposed to 38 percent non-RIO, went back into prison. In the average-risk ranking, the tally was 8 percent RIO versus 11 percent non-RIO. No significant difference occurred for re-imprisonment among those studied who ranked as low risk.

The Texas A&M study not only indicated the success of the RIO effort but also identified both the scope of its work and the extent of its positive influence on the lives of the participants. Between 1995 and 1998, over 100,000 released inmates voluntarily participated in RIO, which found jobs for 69 percent of those in need. (20) Of those who chose not to enter the project, only 36 percent obtained gainful employment. Obviously, more ex-offenders working and paying taxes as opposed to serving time in prison can result in a positive impact on society.

New Partnerships

Community policing is changing the manner in which many law enforcement agencies around the nation do business. Instead of being what many authors a couple of decades ago characterized as an army of occupation stationed in America's inner cities, police in many areas are emerging as true partners for citizens and other service providers. A number of factors have influenced this change, including a better-educated police work force and a need for all parties to cooperate so they could stretch limited resources and achieve their goals. Operating largely under the federal government umbrella, grant providers, in actuality, have been responsible for changing the face of American policing.

A report prepared for the National Institute of Justice by the University of Maryland documented eight communities using local police as an ingredient in ongoing reentry initiatives. (21) The information contained in the report may usher in a new phase of law enforcement activity.

The research identified five steps in the reentry process: "1) program eligibility, 2) institutional treatment plans, 3) structured prerelease planning, 4) structured reentry, and 5) community reintegration strategies." (22) The authors felt that the last three phases were equally dangerous for an offender's successful reentry. In all of the areas, police have the knowledge and ability to make meaningful contributions. While offenders are incarcerated, police, an often overlooked intelligence resource, can supply information on their families, associates, gang affiliations, and neighborhood problems they likely will encounter. Rather than relying on a "cookie-cutter" approach, examining information of this type would prove valuable in the development of treatment and prerelease plans most likely to aid inmates.

During the structured re-entry phase, programs often use police as a deterrent for offenders should they violate the terms of their release agreements. This approach differs in a significant way from older methods of policing. First, law enforcement officers meet face-to-face with offenders and tell them frankly what the community expects and what the consequences will be if they fail to meet expectations. Second, officers serve as a resource to help offenders who may have problems achieving what authorities expect. (23) In some jurisdictions, police work closely with probation and parole agencies, even participating in home visits and curfew checks, to ensure that offenders meet the requirements of their release agreements. Last, police in some jurisdictions sit on boards that determine whether offenders have achieved a successful outcome. This probably represents the most controversial use of police in the reentry process because of the appearance, real or imagined, that the law enforcement community is not really an impartial voice in the decision-making process.

In years past, inmates normally were released under the supervision of either a parole or probation department. Changes in sentencing procedures have greatly increased the number of prisoners released unconditionally into communities across the country. Police are the only enforcement agents for those released unconditionally. Where the goal of incarceration is simply to punish criminal behavior, traditional policing methods (if ex-inmates reoffend, they are rearrested and suffer new consequences) would be an acceptable governmental response. The information now available, however, shows that the recently released most likely will fail without help. The law enforcement community may be forced to expand its range of services to assist ex-offenders unless some other group comes forward to fill the void.

During the community reintegration phase, officers work to lessen the friction that always accompanies change. When offenders return to their neighborhoods, they form only part of the equation. Family members often must rearrange their lives to accommodate another person in the household. Victims still may be a part of the community and require reassurance that they will not be victimized anew. Community groups need to know that any future transgressions will be dealt with quickly. Police often are the focal point for all of these entities. If offenders make a successful transition, the involvement of the police will be limited to positive interactions with both the offenders and the community.


Offender reentry is a pressing issue for society. Governmental resources have been severely taxed as legislatures have criminalized more and more behaviors. Determinate sentencing, coupled with mandatory minimum time requirements, has resulted in longer stays for offenders. Many treatment and educational programs have not been able to keep pace with the demand. Unconditional release, for those having completed a determinate sentence, has resulted in many offenders being returned to the environments that initially contributed to their abhorrent behavior. Without new tools to assist them in avoiding pitfalls, ex-offenders are likely to repeat previous negative actions, which could lead to their reincarceration. This, in turn, causes multiple injuries to society, including the cost of the crime itself, the need for appropriate housing for the offender, the loss of productivity that could be expected had the person not reoffended, and the harm to the family structures of victim and offender. The magnitude of the problem defies a quick-fix answer.


New ways of thinking are a necessary step to reducing the recidivism rate. Project RIO is a shining example of what can be done when effective partnerships are formed and conditions allow them to function in the proper manner. Moreover, finding the role for law enforcement to work with other team members in reentry would benefit everyone concerned. With its emphasis on problem solving, community policing is changing the face of law enforcement around the country. Not everyone, however, agrees with using police officers in this way, and some agencies may be reluctant to incorporate them for fear of having their own work over-shadowed. But, by establishing guidelines for law enforcement involvement, cooperating partners could ensure that their needs are met and police officers would better understand what is expected of them. Using law enforcement personnel could reduce costs and lessen the workload of some over-worked agencies. Officers would benefit from working in these programs because they would be placed in close contact with those who, statistically, are the most likely to commit new crimes. Although it is heartening to see that steps are being taken to improve programs available for those leaving correctional facilities, more work still needs to be done to help offenders reform, rather than return to their criminal ways.


(1) T. Hughes and D. Wilson, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Reentry Trends in the United States, 2002; retrieved on May 20, 2004, from

(2) Eastern State Penitentiary Web site; retrieved on May 20, 2004, from

(3) The structure remains and is being renovated as a historical monument. To help pay for the renovation, the site is open to the public and has been rented to filmmakers.

(4) P.A. Langan and D.J. Levin, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994, NCJ 193427 (Washington, DC, 2002).

(5) Ibid., 1.

(6) Sidra Lea Gifford, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Justice Expenditure and Employment in the United States, 1999, February 2002, NCJ 191746; retrieved on May 24, 2004, from

(7) Jeremy Travis, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, "But They All Come Back: Rethinking Prisoner Reentry," Sentencing & Corrections: Issues for the 21st Century, NCJ 181413 (Washington, DC, May 2000).

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) By the end of 2000, 16 states had abolished discretionary release from prison by a parole board for all offenders; supra note 1.

(11) 117 S.Ct. 2072.

(12) The author based this observation on his 30 years of law enforcement experience.

(13) The author learned this concept from Olgen Williams, director of the Indianapolis Christamore House Community Center. The two have worked together on a number of projects, including Weed and Seed and gang prevention programs, since 1995.

(14) U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, Texas' Project RIO, NCJ 168637 (Washington, DC, June 1998).

(15) Ibid.

(16) Ibid.

(17) Supra note 4.

(18) R. Menon, C. Blakely, D. Carmichael, and L. Silver, Texas A&M University, Public Policy Resources Laboratory, An Evaluation of Project RIO Outcomes: An Evaluative Report (College Station, TX, 1992).

(19) The researchers identified a total of 23 factors, including substance abuse history, living arrangements, academic level, vocational skills, employment history, and the correctional officer's impression of risk.

(20) Supra note 14.

(21) J.M. Byrne, F.S. Taxman, and D. Young, University of Maryland, Bureau of Governmental Research, Emerging Roles and Responsibilities in the Reentry Partnership Initiative: New Ways of Doing Business (College Park, MD, 2002).

(22) Ibid., 5.

(23) Indianapolis has made limited use of this by working with the Indianapolis Violence Reduction Partnership to hold "lever-pulling" sessions for parolees and probationers. Some success has been demonstrated in that the number of violations among those persons targeted for this program has significantly decreased from the start of the effort until the present time.
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Author:Allender, David M.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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