Reversing Recidivism: Methods for Success

By L. Dawson and N. Brewer

Each year, more than 700,000 people are released from state and Federal prison, while another 9 million cycle through local jails. Statistics indicate that more than two-thirds of state prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release and half are re-incarcerated.
–Office of National Drug Control Policy

In a country which now holds over 2.2 million people behind bars, the U.S. rate of incarceration towers over that of every other nation. This is a country that locks up 706 out of every 100,000 people that live within or pass through its borders – the highest documented rate in the world.

One of the leading causes of the U.S.’s prolific rate of incarceration is the soaring level of recidivism among released offenders. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 75 percent of the people released from this nation’s correctional facilities are set free, only to reoffend within five years. In addition to the crippling burden this imposes on U.S. taxpayers, its current system offers prisoners little access to educational and recovery-based programs, approaches proven to effectively reduce recidivism. America’s criminal justice system is counterproductive and in need of reform.

The following is a compilation of methods that carry potential to significantly curb recidivism among offenders in the U.S.


Educating Prisoners Before Reentry

Prison education programs have been found to reduce recidivism almost invariably. A study conducted by the Correctional Education Association concluded that correctional education decreases long-term recidivism by nearly 30 percent. The fact that prison education is so effective in checking recidivism suggests that these programs should be expanded.

The majority of those incarcerated in the U.S. do not have a high school diploma. Prisoners who obtain a GED while incarcerated are less likely to recidivate after their release. In the state of Indiana, for example, the recidivism rate for those who leave prison with a GED is 20 percent less than that of the general population.

Prisoners who take college courses while incarcerated are even less likely to reoffend. A report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) states that recidivism rates for prisoners who had participated in post-secondary education programs were 46 percent lower than those who had not taken college classes.

Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York announced plans to finance college courses in 10 prisons throughout the state, praising programs already in place like the Bard Prison HYPERLINK “”Initiative. According to an op-ed piece published in The New York Times:

Mr. Cuomo pointed out that inmates who got an education had a much better chance of finding a job and were much less likely to menace their neighbors after release. He noted that the cost – $5,000 per inmate per year – would be a bargain compared with the $60,000 it costs to incarcerate a prisoner for a year.

Unfortunately, Mr. Cuomo dropped the college initiative from his budget upon the first signs of resistance from legislators.


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been found to reduce further criminal behavior among offenders more effectively than many other approaches. CBT is a form of therapy designed to change the way a person thinks. Participants are trained to identify irrational thoughts and then consciously replace them with a new way of thinking, one which uses moral reasoning and encourages a pro-social perspective on life.

Therapeutic Community (TC), an intensive eight to 12-month treatment program found in some U.S. prisons, uses CBT as one of the core components for its program. Unfortunately, access to life-changing programs like TC is not made available to most prisoners.

Mindfulness Meditation

Another program which offers a gamut of therapeutic benefits to prisoners is Mindfulness-Based Stress RHYPERLINK “”eduction (MBSR), or Mindfulness Training (MT). This treatment is achieved through a disciplined practice of meditation. Results of a study posted by The Prison Journal state that mindfulness-based stress reduction is worthy of ongoing study which explores the broader applications it could have in correctional facilities across the country.

A study by the Journal of Substance Abuse found that, because of its stress reducing properties, MT could also be useful in treating substance use disorders. Since many convictions of offenders in the U.S. are for drug or alcohol related offenses, MT carries the potential to impact rates of recidivism.

Mindfulness meditation would be an ideal means of treatment for prisoners who do not qualify for – or just do not have access to – other rehabilitation programs, especially those being held in solitary confinement. It can be practiced anywhere, by anyone, so long as they have motivation to better themselves.


Connecting with a Higher Power

The experience of a spiritual awakening can be an effective remedy for those seeking deliverance from a drug and criminal lifestyle. Twelve-step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) have aided millions in this endeavor, and are based on the principal of surrendering to a higher power. Those who have worked the program claim to have a newfound peace and a sense of meaning and purpose in life. The 12 steps are also part of the curriculum taught in therapeutic communities (described above).

Since many other spiritual practices have been reported to help people make lifestyle improvements, a spiritual transformation of any kind may be advantageous for anyone with a desire for positive change.

Prisoner Reentry Support Services

Every week, approximately 10,000 prisoners are released from U.S. prisons, and many of them have no place to live. To prevent released prisoners from resorting to a life of crime in order to survive, access to transitional-housing programs and organizations that assist offenders in the reentry process should be made more readily available. According to an article by The Crime Report:

[S]table housing not only reduces violations of public order laws related to living and working on the street, but it increases exposure to pro-social networks and provides a sense of safety and well-being conducive to participating in treatment and other services.

Family Reintegration and Prisoner Reentry

Families can also play an invaluable role in the offender reentry process by supporting their loved ones who are returning to society. A study published by the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation found that recently released prisoners often rely on family for emotional and economic support and housing. Families can support the reentry of incarcerated loved ones by educating themselves on their role in the process and exploring various related resources available to them.

Family reintegration classes, offered to prisoners at certain correctional facilities throughout the U.S., have made a considerable impact on mending broken relationships between prisoners and their family members. Families can lend their support by participating in programs like TC, which offers course in family reintegration designed to help offenders reconcile with family and loved ones prior to reentry.


As it stands, the U.S. incarceration rate is excessive to say the least. This country’s juggernaut criminal justice system hoards prisoners, resulting in overcrowded jails and prisons. And when it releases offenders back to the streets, the system’s confining current pulls them back in like a vortex. Rampant rates of recidivism are a product of this cycle. For this reason, access to resources that promote education, rehabilitation, and re-entry support for offenders is imperative.

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