Prisoner Reentry Programs: Penetrating the Black Box for Better Theory and Practice

Prisoner Reentry Programs: Penetrating the Black Box for Better Theory and Practice

Author: Eric L. Grommon
Publisher: El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2013. 230p.
Reviewer: Jesse Jannetta | November 2014

An abiding challenge of reentry practice is balancing a focus on long-term behavior change with attention to immediate survival needs. Reentry programs must deliver “what works” in terms of recidivism reduction, but also attend to reestablishing (or in many cases, establishing) access to housing and income. Failure to change criminogenic patterns of thought and action will likely undermine housing and employment stability, but failure to secure stable housing and employment makes successfully engaging in behavior change interventions difficult.

Eric Grommon seeks to illuminate the interplay between program effectiveness and social stability. He presents results of an analysis of data from a larger randomized controlled trial assessing the impact of an intensive reentry substance abuse program targeting a high-risk male population. Grommon goes beyond the question of whether the program worked, the dominant concern of reentry program evaluation, to examine the interplay between employment and housing stability, treatment performance, and recidivism outcomes.

Grommon found that a greater number of housing moves was related to more program violations and a higher likelihood of absconding, but also to greater dosage of treatment received, which was unexpected. Employment stability had the expected relationship to treatment performance outcomes, with a greater number of months worked related to higher program dosage, lower incidence of program violations and lower likelihood of absconding. In terms of recidivism measures, housing instability was related to relapse (number of positive drug tests), but not re-incarceration, while employment stability was related to less frequent relapse and re-incarceration. Neither had a statistically significant relationship to re-arrest. Treatment performance appeared to mediate the relationship between employment and housing stability and the recidivism outcomes in some cases. The models controlling for the treatment performance variables did not find a direct effect of housing stability on relapse, although they did find one on arrest. All the direct effects of employment stability on the recidivism outcomes were replicated when controlling for treatment performance. Summarizing the results, Grommon notes, “[t]hese findings suggest that participation in treatment may serve as a protective factor for recidivism, but not for relapse.”

Grommon constructs employment and housing stability differently, indicating the challenge of conceptualizing these nuanced dynamics. Employment stability is defined as the consistency in hours worked, regardless of whether the employer is the same. By contrast, changes in residence define housing stability. Yet changes in employment can interrupt the accumulation of social capital and impede a positive career and earnings trajectory, even if they don’t adversely impact the individual’s current income. And the number of housing changes may not be as important as the type of housing change. Changes of addresses can be a positive sign for the reentry population, perhaps moving out of a relative’s home as they become self-supporting, or leaving a transition housing facility. I mention this not as a criticism of what Grommon has done, but rather to illustrate how much more there remains to be unraveled in understanding the complex dynamics of reentry.

Jesse Jannetta is a Senior Research Associate with the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center

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