Home Free: Prisoner Reentry And Residential Change After Hurricane Katrina

Author: David S. Kirk
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2020. 248 pages.
Reviewer: Bianca Bersani ǀ January 2022

We have heard the staggering figures before: that more than 600,000 incarcerated individuals are released each year and that roughly two-thirds of these men and women will be re-incarcerated within 3-years. Less often heard is that nearly all of these releases will be mandated to return to the environments from which they came. In Home Free: Prisoner Reentry and Residential Change after Hurricane Katrina, David Kirk cleverly and systematically explores if and how the alteration of a piece of this cyclical churning in and out of prison – residential relocation following incarceration – affects recidivism and desistance from crime. Through his personal connection to New Orleans and the painful experiences following Hurricane Katrina, Kirk shares how a simple question about where were people who exited prison soon after Katrina living, spurred a decade-long inquiry. The research presented in this book walks through not only the answer to that question, but what that answer means for later involvement in crime, interpersonal relationships, and legal opportunities. By orienting a devasting moment in history and the destruction to New Orleans as a powerful analytic tool, Kirk’s research both advances theories of desistance, and offers insights for crafting policies and practices aimed at reducing recidivism and supporting the movement away from offending. In doing so, he centers the role of social context in the life course and our understanding of how people change.

The organizing thesis of this book is that “if criminal behavior is inextricably tied to social context, then residential change may be a type of life transition that engenders a turning point in the life course of crime.” To test this argument, Kirk undertakes a mixed method study, integrating quantitative insights from a sample of nearly 3,000 Louisiana parolees released prior to and following Hurricane Katrina with qualitative depth by following 10 individuals who took various pathways post-incarceration. To unravel the relationship between residential relocation and offending, the book begins with a descriptive portrait of how rates of recidivism compare among movers (defined as those who reside in a different parish upon release relative to where they were pre-conviction) and stayers (defined as those who returned to the parish where they resided pre-incarceration). The extent of the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina and the virtual decimation of entire parishes in New Orleans fundamentally altered the reentry experience, and in doing so presented a scientific opportunity. Whereas pre-hurricane, paroled individuals in Louisiana were among the few to have no legal restrictions on their place of residence, following the hurricane many were forced to relocate. As a result, the hurricane presented a pivotal moment in time; prior to the hurricane, individuals who opted to move to a new place of residence may have been fundamentally different from those who opted to stay (a form of selection bias); however, following the hurricane many did not have the option to return, rendering differences due to selection bias less statistically intrusive.

The focus in Chapters 4 and 5 builds on Kirk’s prior work by centering this point in time as a natural experiment to unravel the relationship between residential relocation and criminal recidivism following individuals for 8-years post-incarceration. Informed by a rich and complex history of research on residential change, the analyses and discussion are presented in a highly accessible and fluid way. We learn that moving matters, with individuals who moved away to new environments significantly less likely to recidivate in the near- and long-term. First-time releasees, women, and Whites reaped the strongest rewards in terms of reduced recidivism rates. Though it may be that the benefits of reduced recidivism are a product of moving to more structurally advantaged contexts, this doesn’t seem to be the case for the movers in this study. While some did move to better resourced areas, for many the move was a lateral one ending up in characteristically similar, disadvantaged environments. This suggests that the differences in recidivism between movers and stayers is more than a contextual effect, and is instead the result of something happening at the individual and/or interpersonal level that is altering behavior.

The most interesting aspect of the book is the exploration into how residential change alters the life course and opportunities for desistance from criminal offending using information gleaned from the qualitative interviews. The stories that unfold through detailed accounts from case studies with 10 men (3 movers, 4 stayers, and 3 who both moved and stayed) shed light on the nuanced relationship between structural features of the environment, subjective intent of individuals, and their interaction, to give us a better understanding of how people change. The severing of contact with criminogenic peers and places is common in the stories of desistance. For example, Kenneth’s success story, shared in Chapter 6, teaches us that his relocation to Texas helped provide opportunities for building a family life and garnering legal employment that structured his daily routines and reduced situational inducements to crime. Whereas a willful desire to change had characterized much of his adolescent and young adult life, his relocation provided him with a necessary element to allow these intentions to take hold. In his reflection we learn the salience of situational temptations, as he recounts that back “home” it was “just too easy” to make money selling drugs. For Kenneth, freeing himself from returning home was an intentional act to afford him the opportunity to start afresh. In terms of desistance, Kenneth’s story is one of success, having desisted from criminal offending, but his story also makes clear the challenges of desistance and the constant effort required to remain crime free. The precarious nature of his employment situation, the struggle with a former criminal identity, and feelings of isolation exert a constant pressure and threaten to undermine his years of progress.

For stayers, the return home following incarceration seems to facilitate an easy reentry into crime and addiction (Chapter 3). Through the life histories of DeShawn and Timothy, for example, we hear how access to drugs, lack of legitimate opportunities, and cynicism toward the law combine to feed persistent patterns of criminal behavior. Each of these contributors to criminal persistence appears to be heightened in former neighborhoods where networks remain intact, where employment and resources are scarce, and where old histories of contact with agents of the legal system provide the scaffolding for regular routines and expectations to reemerge through interactions with the police.

Though residential relocation was clearly a turning point in the life course for many, it is not always sufficient to guarantee desistance. Chapter 8 is devoted to digging into the negative cases; those who move but remain involved in crime, and those who stay but desist despite being surrounded by situational inducements to offend. Addiction is central to the story of persistence. We hear, for example, from Vernon’s recounting that a lifelong struggle with drug dependency can be counteracted by a change of place where opportunities to develop new relationships emerge and environmental cues that provoke relapse are lessened. However, the lives of Jack and Justin show how, regardless of place, idle time can feed addictive temptations. Though the author admits that his sampling strategy may have resulted in a qualitative sample more prone to substance use and addiction, the quantitative data confirm the regular co-existence of addiction and criminal recidivism. The widespread derailing of intentions to desist when there is addiction, suggests that intervention efforts would better be served by viewing addiction as a chronic disease rather than as criminal behavior.

A constant theme cutting across the life histories of Vernon, Michael, Darnell, Timothy, DeShawn, Terence, James, Kenneth, Jack, and Justin is the role of a structured life course for facilitating desistance. Changing the structural inducements to crime does not require residential relocation, but changing the people, places, and things associated with offending appear to provide a promising pathway for promoting the desistance process, enabling purposeful intentions to desist, or simply by presenting enough of a barrier to put continued offending out of reach. This presents an opportunity for designing new policies or altering current practices. At a minimum, the findings of this research challenge the near universal policy that requires individuals to return to their place of last residence pre-incarceration. Though this requirement may be procedurally easier to deploy, it works against efforts to reduce recidivism, and to the extent that it enhances crime it could put public safety at risk. The findings of this research also bring to bear current      philosophies and practices that place the responsibility for behavioral change entirely on the individual. When individuals are placed (mandated) back in the same situations that helped foster their involvement in crime, and that are often characterized by under-resourced schools, limited employment opportunities, a lack of affordable housing, and environmental cues that feed addiction, a return to crime and drug use is not surprising. The nature of this research and the use of a natural experiment reveal that the opportunities afforded in new areas, and the chance to sever connections with former criminogenic peers and places, can aid behavioral change and may function as a turning point in the life course regardless of individual differences.

One question that emerges from this work is if the findings from this research and the fallout of a natural disaster would replicate in a real-world scenario through structured policy. Was there something unique that followed in the aftermath of the hurricane that caused the results observed in this work? For instance, it may be that areas that received New Orleans migrants including parolees were uniquely receptive and supportive, with varying levels of government assistance that would not be present during “normal” times. It may also be that the personal devastation experienced by the men and women who were the focus of this study situate this group as being different from typical parolees. In short, would we see the same result elsewhere, or are Kirk’s findings unique to this moment in time? We get a glimpse at the answer to this question in the epilogue of the book entitled Residential Relocation Absent a Hurricane. Kirk and colleagues developed and piloted the Maryland Opportunities through Vouchers Experiment (MOVE) which strategically placed individuals released in Maryland in another county. The details of the research design can be found in the epilogue. In brief, though the sample was too small to draw statistical conclusions from, there is evidence that real-world policies that support voluntary efforts to relocate to new geographic areas through housing assistance programs can benefit the desistance process.

It is easy to say that this book is a significant contribution to scholarship on the life course of crime, re-entry and desistance, and a must read for policy makers and practitioners working with the formerly incarcerated. The rigorous study design integrating a large quantitative dataset that leverages a natural experiment analytic approach with a deep qualitative inquiry provides a richness of detail about the challenges of re-entry, and how context overlays the process of desisting from crime. In doing so, Kirk not only adds to theoretical development on how people change and the factors that hinder or facilitate that process, but provides timely guidance on the ways in which this information can be translated into policy and practice. I did find myself wanting more from the section on place-based interventions that are briefly discussed in the final chapter. Harkening back to early 20th-century scholarship, this book reminds us of the salience and stability of place in fostering and breeding crime. Altering policies that mandate the return to one’s place of residence pre-incarceration seems a natural and relatively easy course of action. However, for a variety of reasons many may not want to move or cannot relocate to new environments. Building on the insights from this research, how best might place-based interventions work in tandem with individual level processes to reduce crime? This book should be used to help motivate a concerted effort to more fully contextualize the life course, and in doing so, to better understand how macro-level forces impinge on the individual life course.

Bianca Bersani is an associate professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland.

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