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What Works in Corrections: Retooling Offender Reentry
By Daniel Patrick Downen M.S. AJ/S
Published: 05/30/2011

Helping hands This is the fourth in a series of articles entitled WHAT WORKS IN CORRECTIONS. The premise here to create productive dialog and stimulate innovative thinking that explores strategies to address ineffective decision making in this money pit called Corrections. What I’m talking about is change. Change the way we think about our profession and change the way we do it.

“Reentry involves the use of programs targeted at promoting the effective reintegration of offenders back into communities upon release from prison and jail. Reentry programming which often involves a comprehensive case management approach, is intended to assist offenders in acquiring the life skills needed to succeed in the community and become law abiding citizens”(U.S. Dept. of Justice). Reentry is an integral component in Corrections because it is the vehicle for reducing soaring high rates of recidivism and therefore increasing public safety which provides for the public welfare. This is accomplished when offenders stay out of prison and are employed. Those who do not recidivate provide cost savings and those employed pay taxes which contributes to the tax base. This is being law an abiding and productive citizen. This is successful reentry.

The best reentry models incorporate a two component program (facility and community based) that consists of three phases. First, programs the offender receives while incarcerated such as instruction in Life Skills, Anger Management, Employment/Vocational Training and Cognitive Restructuring. The second phase is community based programs designed to assist in initial reentry into the community such as housing assistance, finding employment and treatment referrals or educational guidance. The third phase programs are implemented long-term to permanently reintegrate the offender into their community. These services are designed to provide continuation of support with employment, employers and treatment providers for needed follow up. In this phase those who are involved in the offender’s reentry and transition into the community like employers and service providers are must stay connected and should work closely with Community Case Mangers or Correctional Counselors for continuous support and guidance to address problematic issues that will arise. Phase Three greatly determines success or failure. According to the CRS Report for Congress, Offender Reentry, 2008, researches in the offender reentry field have found that the best models begin during incarceration and extend throughout the release and reintegration process. It is at this phase where we lack commitment, political will and focus. Failure at this phase is common.

When most offenders return home from prison often they return to poverty, crime and high unemployment areas. They lack treatment services or financial and geographical availability. If they were fortunate enough to receive employment training while incarcerated, they lack understanding and know how to apply their skills to finding and maintaining a job. In its infancy, Parole was designed to address these challenges of offender reentry. Unfortunately, Parole has evolved in most departments as simply a community surveillance arm of DOC and does nothing towards the goal of successful reentry and recidivism reduction. One could even make the case that Parole Agents have a vested interest in violating offenders and returning them to facilities to reduce case numbers and ease their workload. It is these types of barriers that squelch successful reentry and increase recidivism rates. Offenders are released with little to no long term support. Released with no one to provide guidance and mentoring through the difficult transition to the community. They are not afforded any continuation of employment assistance, training, counseling or guidance. They are for the most part, left to their own devices. Why is it we offer such services inside correctional facilities but don’t feel it prudent upon reentry? There is usually no one to act as a liaison between offender and employers to deal with obvious issues that will arise given the fact that many offenders have very little work experience and subsequently no work ethic. In fact, many employers hesitate to employ offenders as they feel they are left alone in the process of reentry and will not be able to have easy access to Parole Agents or Correctional Counselors to deal with obvious issues and concerns associated with the offender. Offender employment upon reentry usually means teaching and indoctrinating the offender with a work ethic that they lack and have not received through proper early socialization. This is no short term task. Helping offenders with criminal backgrounds to find and keep employment is clearly difficult work. Goodwill Industries believes that until necessary steps are taken to help offenders attain and retain jobs, recidivism will continue to be an escalating problem that weakens families and communities, and stretches corrections budgets to the breaking point. We as corrections professionals must understand and educate the public at large to the fact helping those offenders whom we can positively impact in reentry, helps all of us as tax payers and increases public safety. Employment is so vital in reentry because it affords the offender self sufficiency and in turn self value, respect and increased self esteem. Ones self image is positive with confidence when they feel the can provide for themselves. Offender employment is key to successful reentry.

Equally important to employment is addressing offenders thinking processes and levels of moral reasoning. Basically, how they think, about their crime or any crime, about victims of crime and empathy. MRT (Moral Reconation Therapy) is one such cognitive restructuring treatment designed to do exactly this. In a recently 20 year recidivism study that compared offenders treated with MRT and those without, the study clearly shows that offenders participation in MRT leads to significantly lower reincarceration rates, lower rearrest rates, and a higher rate of clean records. MRT without question provides offenders with the needed long-term cognitive habilitation necessary for recidivism reduction.


“The Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics has estimated that two-thirds of all released prisoners will commit new offenses (recidivate) within three years of their release. Many studies have indicated that reentry initiatives that combine work training and placement with counseling and housing assistance can reduce recidivism rates” (CRS Report for Congress, 2008).

We in corrections and as a branch of Criminal Justice are mandated to optimize public safety and rehabilitate where possible. With this said, it is incumbent on us to recommit to our mission. If we are going to achieve what we are entrusted by the public to achieve, we must look at offender reentry as a long-term aspect of recidivism reduction. A retooling of reentry programming is long overdue. Reentry programming initiated in the facility that does not prove fruitful in terms of successful reentry is a waste of resources and effort. Correctional counseling, life skills instruction and habilitation cannot stop at the gates.

Programs like MRT and employment training started in correctional facilities must continue long after release. Correctional Counselor duties must be expanded to include community casework that can work hand in hand with Parole Agents, offender employers, prospective employers as well as treatment providers. Substantial resources and commitment should be devoted to reentry. We must come to understand that successful reentry is a process and long-term endeavor and strategically plan accordingly. Reentry is also individualized to each offender and their specific needs. The duration of reentry assistance should not be determined by arbitrary program protocols created by bureaucrats, but rather continuous assessment and evaluation of individual needs. If we are going to take reentry serious, we should even offer services beyond parole expiration. Remember, recidivism reduction is the goal.

Past failure of reentry is rooted on its popularity or lack thereof. Before we as a profession can proceed with such a dynamic shift in policy, we must educate tax payers and political policy makers to why retooling reentry is vital to all of us. If citizens really understood how reducing recidivism can impact them, then it would be easier for elected officials and appointed Corrections Department Heads to lobby for and attain needed resources.

If all stakeholders could comprehend that helping offenders in reentry, helps us as society, then such a retooling would be demanded immediately. Public relations are paramount in reentry strategy development and retooling.


CRS (Congressional Research Services) Report for Congress, 2008. Offender Reentry: Correctional Statistics, Reintegration into the Community, and Recidivism.

Goodwill Industries, Road to Reintegration, Ensuring Successful Community Re Entry for People Who Are Former Offenders.

Little, Gregory L. Ed.D., Robinson, Kenneth D. Ed. D., Burnette, Katherine, D. M.S., Swan, Stephan E., M.Ed., Cognitive Behavioral Treatment Review. Twenty-Year Recidivism Results for MRT –Treated Offenders.

U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. Reentry. Retrieved 5/15/11 from www.reentry.gov/learn.html.

Corrections.com author Daniel P Downen MS. AJ/S received an M.S. in the Administration of Justice and Security from the University of Phoenix and a B.S. in the Administration of Justice from Southern IL. University at Carbondale. He has served in the following capacities, Juvenile & Adult Probation Officer, Intensive Supervision Program Manager, and Agency Supervisor. He is currently a Corrections Counselor With the Illinois Dept. of Corrections.

Other articles by Downen:


  1. dpdpar5 on 05/25/2011:

    Newtime, There is no doubt we waste many resources and time on extremely violent and dangerous offenders who are beyond habilitation. We do this out of political correctness and catoring to the loudest voices. We do this in fear of law suit and litigation and it is wrong. We must not fear litigation if our reentry policies are sound and based on what works research. This to is a failure of reentry. We must live up to our public mandate to optimize efficiency and closely assess and evaluate those who are deemed appropriate and likely to benefit from legitimate and bona fide reentry programming. Remember public safety is more than incarcerating dangerous offenders. It is effective and efficient corrections and government. It is reducing recidivism and providing a cost effective system of incarceration. Incarceration standing alone will fail. We must stop lumping all offenders into the same barrel of rehabilitation. Some are not. However, we must apply research and sound strategies based on qualitative and quatitative tested and proven methodologies. We can no longer afford to do what is publicly popular. WE must achieve results if we are going to turn around this monet pit we call corrections. I will finish by stating a solid work ethic and morales are not realized in people until they are taught. If they are never taught through proper early socialization or cognitive restructuring, they will never have them.

  2. Mark G on 05/25/2011:

    I am a re-entry professional: Without a doubt, there is no more of an accurate correlative measure to reduce recidvism than Education. The use of Pell Grants to offer educational courses that culiminated in an inmates ability to earn a degree was the most effect use of public funds to support the re-entry of inmates back into our communities. Now you have inmates who need a significantly lower amount of re-entry resources because they can function at a higher level than others without an education. The US Dept of Education, the US Federal Bureau of Prisons Educational branch, and many state correction agency's all affirmed through research and investigations that education has a positive impact upon inmates and thier re-entry back into society. Despite imperical evidence from educators, congress in the 90's took away Federal Funding for the education for inmates. Why are we having this discussion when we know what works? Where is the national lobby to advocate for education for inmates? It makes sense, it saves dollars, it improves outcomes, it saves lives, it reduces crime, it strengthens our communities and makes our lives and our vocation that much safer. What do you think? What are your ideas?

  3. Newtime on 05/25/2011:

    The main problem with offender recidivism is that they learn to have a strong sense of entitlement and the programs pushed by the "Reentry" advocates almost never are designed to develop personality responsibility by the offender for their housing,lives,etc. We have been building many layers of social services and expensive "entitlements" for years in Ohio but the worst offenders keep offending. How many tax dollars and years of staff resources must be wasted on the so-called "high risk offender" before someone is bright enough to realize the deeply entrenched criminals are not interested in being useful,productive citizens? In society we need more people with good work attitudes and hands on skills,not more government programs or "college graduates" with no true pro-social ,productive plans.

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