UChicago Crime Lab event tackles challenges of life after prison

Nationally, more than 2 million people are in prison. That number should be shocking but has become normal over the past few decades; since the 1970s, the U.S. incarceration rate has increased by 450 percent. Illinois has about 69,000 individuals in correctional facilities, including local jails, juvenile detention and prison, putting Illinois’ number of incarcerated people near the top of a nationwide list.

During any given year in Illinois, about 30,000 people are released back into society. Unfortunately, many of them will return to correctional facilities within a short time period, while a tragic number who remain in the community will meet an early, violent death on the streets. 

Individuals discharged from correctional facilities and returning to communities face enormous hurdles to get jobs and housing, to continue their education, and to obtain mental health and substance abuse services.

The University of Chicago Crime Lab recently brought together members of the policy, practice, research and philanthropic communities to learn more about these challenges and about what the best available evidence suggests is working or promising.

Crime Lab Director Prof. Jens Ludwig shared information with the audience from a new randomized controlled trial conducted in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections that evaluated a program that prepared inmates for jobs before they were released from prison. “The time period right after prison release is the highest window of risk for recidivism,” Ludwig said. 

Preparing prisoners for employment, helping them manage substance abuse problems, improving their decision-making skills and securing housing are all important. “What we found with this study is when they have access to jobs, they’ll work. But the jobs are often transitional, so when the jobs go away, the employment trends do not sustain, and the risk of re-arrest is high within 12 months.” Ludwig added that he was surprised the study showed that even in the best scenario where an individual was released from prison and got a job, the earnings were very low, ranging from $500 to $14,000 annually. 

Linda Teplin, Northwestern University professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and an expert on the mental health needs among juvenile detainees, said the re-incarceration rates are very high for young people and more often it’s the poor kids who get into trouble. She called the death rate after detention for the age group of 10 to 17 year olds shocking. “It’s twice that of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said. The No. 1 cause of death is homicide for these girls and boys, and it’s almost always by firearms. Teplin said many of these young people can’t read and are below average in their intellectual abilities. “Early education, ongoing education is the key to changing these kids’ trajectory,” said Teplin.

One program may not solve the problem, added Jonathan Guryan, an associate professor of human development and social policy and of economics at Northwestern University, and co-director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Lab.

Guryan said it’s likely the combination of several programs that can be most promising. One approach he said that has had some success in reducing recidivism is using cognitive behavioral therapy to help correctional facility inmates better manage automatic vs. reflective thinking. “The question we ask is, ‘What if you had done X instead of Y?’” said Guryan. “For a lot of kids, they just made bad decisions. They’re not bad kids.”

Leaders from the Illinois state and local criminal justice systems also participated in the event. They spoke of the need for better data management systems and research that will help them determine what programs are working based on evidence. But they also acknowledged the difficulty of addressing issues of poverty and of people returning to the bad environments where they first got into trouble.

“We know there are needs for better mental health services and housing once individuals are released from correctional facilities,” said Gladyse Taylor, assistant director of the Illinois Department of Corrections. “We’re also examining the jobs and education programs we offer to the inmates.” Taylor said state officials are also examining questions such as, “Are we offering education and training that matches what’s needed so these individuals can either continue their education or get jobs once they leave our system?”

Candice Jones, the acting director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, is eager for research that will provide evidence-based data that shows what works. Jones said the recidivism rate for juveniles is 53.5 percent and 86 percent for re-arrest within a three-year period. These findings are consistent with other states, but too high, according to Jones. “These are hard issues and there is no silver bullet,” said Jones. “Research has shown that if you link an individual with a mentor, they tend to succeed more, but it has to be coupled with other programming supports.”

Keynote speaker Laurence Steinberg, distinguished university professor of psychology at Temple University, a nationally known expert on adolescence and the author of Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence, said very few people go into the criminal justice system as adults. Most of them go in and come out as adolescents. He added that studies show the brain doesn’t fully mature until the mid-20s. “The brain is very plastic and malleable during adolescence,” Steinberg said. Young people ages 19 to 22 are more like adolescents than adults. That means their impulses are much stronger, their self-control is not fully developed, and they are very susceptible to peer pressure. The risks are highest for those in anti-social peer groups.

“There is a window of opportunity to improve self-control, which can lead to success in life through school and the workplace,” said Steinberg. He pointed to the success of the UChicago Crime Lab studies of Youth Guidance’s “Becoming a Man” (B.A.M.) program, which has been proven to increase self-control for young men and improve school achievement, while decreasing involvement in criminal activity.

For Charles Perry, mentors are key. Director of community organizing at the Westside Health Authority and one of the speakers at the event, Perry had spent 19 years in prison and received help at the Safer Foundation when he got out. The Safer Foundation, one of the event co-sponsors, assists individuals as they are reentering society to overcome obstacles, especially with job preparation and placement.

“We have to start using the people who have changed their lives around [after prison],” he said. “What do we do with people who have been incarcerated? Ten dollars and a bus ticket. That’s what we do to them. What do you expect that person to do?” Perry also stressed the need for better programs that engage mentors who have successfully transformed their own lives after serving time in prison.

The “Facing the Challenge of Reentry: Strategies and Evidence” event was held at the Chicago Innovation Exchange and co-sponsored by the University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement, the UChicago Urban Network and the Safer Foundation.