Addressing Poverty through the Justice System

Training for Re-Entry Success

Develop life and work skills necessary after prison.

While many offenders can be successfully diverted from incarceration, incarceration may be the most appropriate sentence for repeat offenders and those who pose a threat to public safety. But because almost all jail inmates and 95% of prison inmates will re-enter society, rehabilitation and preparation for re-entry must be a priority for state corrections departments.

Programs within facilities must prepare inmates to return to their communities with the skills needed to successfully exit a life of crime and achieve self-sufficiency. To reduce recidivism, programming should focus on developing work and life skills. By taking a holistic approach to addressing behavioral and mental health issues and providing opportunities to train and gain certifications for attainable jobs post-release, states can help people successfully transition from incarceration to independence.

Solving the Problems

Those in poverty, and especially those in the incarcerated population, have experienced deep traumas that affect their choices and behaviors. These experiences, both before and during incarceration, often lead to trauma-related symptoms such as psychological distress, depression, impulsivity, substance use, and risky behaviors, and in some cases may rise to the level of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).1Carrie Pettus-Davis, Tanya Renn, and Stephanie Kennedy, “Trauma and Resource Loss During Reentry: Early Findings from a Multi-State Trial” (Institute for Justice Research and Development, May 2020), It is critical for an individual’s successful re-entry, but also for public safety, that they be properly prepared through treatment programs that best fit their individual needs.

Knowing that incarceration is a traumatic experience, it is important to evaluate everyone to determine the punishment and programs that will result in successful reintegration with their community.

How to implement

State Legislature

  • Require the use of a validated risk and needs assessment when determining parole or probation conditions to reduce risk and promote successful re-entry.
  • Encourage or mandate diversion for first-time, low-level crimes, under the condition that the defendant will complete the programming as determined by the court after a risk and needs assessment.

Administrative Agencies

  • Implement therapeutic communities that are separated from the rest of the prison population and include aftercare plans.


Therapeutic Communities.      

Therapeutic Communities (TCs) are specialized in-prison treatment programs. They typically focus on treating substance use, while integrating cognitive behavioral therapy to help participants develop self-reliance, accept responsibility for their actions, and manage their emotions in a positive way. These programs work best when the therapeutic community is separate from the rest of the prison population and includes aftercare for those who are exiting prison.2How Are Therapeutic Communities Integrated into the Criminal Justice System? (National Institute on Drug Abuse, July 2015), The Texas Department of Criminal Justice provides many rehabilitative programs, including an In-Prison Therapeutic Community; this consists of a six-months in-prison programming, followed by up to 12 months of aftercare that involves residential treatment, outpatient aftercare, and support groups.3“Substance Use Treatment Program,” Rehabilitation Programs Division, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, accessed November 30, 2021,

Texas Prison Closures.

Texas employed risk and needs assessments to enable more people to be placed on community supervision and reallocate prison savings to in-prison programming, evidence-based re-entry interventions, advancing substance use and mental health programs, and increasing the use of special drug and veterans courts.4Marc Levin, “Public Safety Requires Thinking Outside the Cell,” Newsweek, July 29, 2020,

Since 2010, Texas has successfully closed 10 prisons, decreasing the incarceration rate by 34%. Furthermore, recidivism improved—including for defendants who received pretrial diversion and were placed on probation instead of serving time in a state jail.

Successful re-entry into society should be considered one of the most important functions of the criminal justice system. The vast majority of those currently incarcerated will eventually be released back into society. However, this transition is difficult and can often lead to re-offending. Recidivism rates, or how often the formerly incarcerated land back into prison, vary over time and by states. Reducing recidivism lowers the financial cost associated with jailing people while also lowering the burden of crime on the families and communities impacted.

There are two types of work release programs. One serves as an alternative sentencing option, allowing people to keep their jobs while serving a sentence. The other provides those nearing the end of their sentence with work as they transition out of the prison system. Although both functions are important, because many who offend are not employed or have non-accommodating employers, the focus of this subsection focuses on work release as a transitional tool for re-entry.

Evidence shows that those who participate in work release programs are less likely to re-offend than those released directly from prison.1William D. Bales et al. An Assessment of the Effectiveness of Prison Work Release Programs on Post-Release Recidivism and Employment (The Florida Department of Corrections and Florida State University College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, December 1, 2015), Transitional work programs are designed to help justice-involved individuals re-integrate into society. They slowly reintroduce incarcerated individuals to civil society within a limited responsibility role. Ideally, work release programs help the incarcerated become more self-sufficient, create structure, and improve social interaction with the non-prison population, all of which makes them less likely to re-offend.

Research shows recidivism rates vary across socioeconomic demographics and crime types.2Jeffery T. Ulmer, “Intermediate Sanctions: A Comparative Analysis of the Probability and Severity of Recidivism,” Sociological Inquiry 71(January 2007): 164–193, Knowing this, programs need to be designed to meet the risk profile of the incarcerated and prioritize those with the highest risk of re-offending to ensure the optimal use of public funding and the best outcomes for participants.3Ulmer, “Intermediate Sanctions.” This means identifying and incentivizing high-risk prisoners to engage in skills training4Dror Walk et al. “The role of employment as a mediator in correctional education’s impact on recidivism: A quasi-experimental study of multiple programs,” Journal of Criminal Justice 74, (June 2021), and mental health counseling5Michael D. Pullmann et al. “Juvenile Offenders With Mental Health Needs: Reducing Recidivism Using Wraparound,” Crime & Delinquency 52, no. 3 (July 2006): 375–97, while incarcerated. Not all re-entry programs are created equal, and the effectiveness of work release programs vary depending on design, oversight, and participation.6Erin Jacobs Valentine and Cindy Redcross, “Transitional jobs after release from prison: effects on employment and recidivism,” IZA Journal of Labor Policy 4, no.16 (August 2015),

Even well-designed programs may face challenges. Work release programs must find a steady stream of community partners willing to take a risk hiring justice-involved individuals. This is particularly challenging in rural communities. Programs should be able to encourage or compel cooperation from prisoners. They need to equip and enable participants to gain employment outside the program. Overall, these programs need to balance the needs of community partners and prisoners to be successful.

How to implement

State Legislature

  • States can encourage or compel program participation for the incarcerated.
  • States can improve program outcomes with oversight, ending funding for ineffective programs and expanding effective programs within existing resources.
  • Employment programs should incorporate best practices for mental health and wellness.


Virginia and South Carolina.

Virginia and South Carolina boast the lowest recidivism rates in the country. Virginia Department of Corrections Director Harold Clarke credits evidence-based programming, addiction treatment, and skills training for the state’s successes.7“Virginia’s Recidivism Rate Remains Among the Lowest in the Country,” News and Press Releases, Virginia Department of Corrections, May 28, 2021, South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling sought to mimic the lessons learned in Virginia and was able to re-create similar outcomes, noting that “knocking down barriers to housing and the stigmatism about hiring former inmates” was key.8Adam Mintzer, “SC governor praises programs keeping 78% of inmates from returning to prison,” WIS News, July 13, 2021,