Overcoming Recidivism

Every year, more than half a million prisoners are released and return home from prison. Reentering citizens face many challenges upon release, including difficulty finding housing, employment and transportation. Others also lose their drivers’ licenses, voting rights, public assistance benefits, education loans and parental rights. Given these obstacles, it’s not surprising that more than four in 10 offenders return to state prison within three years of release, according to a Pew Center on the States report.1

Reduction in recidivism means fewer victims, and less prison costs.

— Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell(R), January 12, 2011

The “revolving door” of recidivism has huge consequences not only for offenders but for our communities as well. High recidivism rates represent new new victims; higher taxpayer costs; and unsupported families on public assistance.2

It’s a high price to pay. In Virginia, the average cost to incarcerate an offender for one year is $24,000. Researchers found that reducing recidivism by just 1% could potentially save the state of Virginia nearly $3 million dollars in a single year. “Reductions in recidivism have an obvious and substantial impact on public safety, correctional costs and victimization,” they concluded in a 2011 status report for the Virginia Office of the Secretary of Public Safety.3

Without education, job skills, and other basic services, offenders are likely to repeat the same steps that brought them to jail in the first place.

—Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal(R)

“The increase in number of releasees has stretched parole services beyond their limits, and officials worry about what assistance can be provided at release. Research confirms that returning prisoners need more help than in the past, yet resources have diminished,” writes Joan Petersilia, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, writes.4
The average annual cost to incarcerate an offender for 1 year in Virginia is $24,000.

Community Organizations Play Key Role

One key to reducing recidivism – even as states cut back budgets – are community-based organizations that connect releases to the resources they need to get out and stay out. At ROOTS, a clothing and food pantry, job services and a peer support help individuals re-enter society successfully. Even more amazing, ROOTS does this with zero state or federal funding.

Effective Strategies

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most reliable strategies in reducing recidivism, leading criminal justice experts have found. Effective cognitive-behavioral programs attempt to assist offenders:

  1. define the problems that led them into conflict with authorities,
  2. select goals,
  3. generate new alternative pro-social solutions, and
  4. implement these solutions. 5

At ROOTS, individuals meet twice a week to participate in cognitive-behavior programs. On Tuesdays, the group shares their experiences with and ways to overcome substance abuse. On Thursdays, they discuss smart goal setting for jobs and behavioral changes needed to get and keep a job. Both support group meetings are grounded in cognitive-behavior therapy and focus on identifying negative thinking patterns and beliefs and replacing them with pro-social attitudes and behaviors.


1 Pew Center on the States, State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, April 2011). http://www.pewstates.org/research/reports/state-of-recidivism-85899377338

2 Virginia Prisoner and Juvenile Offender Re-Entry Council Report 2010.

3 Status Report on Offender Transitional and Re-entry Services Office of the Secretary of Public Safety. November 15, 2011 http://www.publicsafety.virginia.gov/initiatives/RE-Entry/2011-Status_Report-Services.pdf

4 Joan Petersilia, What Works in Prisoner Reentry Reviewing and Questioning the Evidence. Volume 68, Number 2, Federal Probation. http://www.caction.org/rrt_new/professionals/articles/PETERSILIA-WHAT%20WORKS.pdf

5 Cullen, F. and P. Gendreau (2000). Assessing Correctional Rehabilitation: Policy, Practice and Prospects. Criminal Justice 2000. J. Horney. Washington, DC, National Institute of Justice. 3: 109-175.