Journal of Criminal Justice Education

criminal justice education journal

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1990-1995, 2005-2022


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criminal justice education journal

American Journal of Criminal Justice

The Journal of the Southern Criminal Justice Association

  • Provides coverage of the criminal justice process, including the formal and informal interplay between system components.
  • Explores innovative practices, policy development, and implementation in the criminal justice field.
  • Recognizes problems and solutions experienced by various segments of populations within criminal justice.
  • Publishes original articles using a broad range of methodologies and perspectives.
  • J. Mitchell Miller

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" Policing the Cybercrime Script of Darknet Drug Markets: Methods of Effective Law Enforcement Intervention " has been announced as the 2022 American Journal of Criminal Justice  Article of the Year! Authored by  Eric Jardin  ( Virginia Tech, USA ), the paper will be free to access for 8 weeks beginning on October 3rd.  Click the heading to learn more!

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Reflections on Criminal Justice Reform: Challenges and Opportunities

Pamela k. lattimore.

RTI International, 3040 East Cornwallis Road, Research Triangle Park, NC 27703 USA

Associated Data

Data are cited from a variety of sources. Much of the BJS data cited are available from the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data, Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research. The SVORI data and the Second Chance Act AORDP data are also available from NACJD.

Considerable efforts and resources have been expended to enact reforms to the criminal justice system over the last five decades. Concerns about dramatic increases in violent crime beginning in the late Sixties and accelerating into the 1980s led to the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Crime” that included implementation of more punitive policies and dramatic increases in incarceration and community supervision. More recent reform efforts have focused on strategies to reduce the negative impacts of policing, the disparate impacts of pretrial practices, and better strategies for reducing criminal behavior. Renewed interest in strategies and interventions to reduce criminal behavior has coincided with a focus on identifying “what works.” Recent increases in violence have shifted the national dialog from a focus on progressive reforms to reduce reliance on punitive measures and the disparate impact of the legal system on some groups to a focus on increased investment in “tough on crime” criminal justice approaches. This essay offers some reflections on the “Waged Wars” and the efforts to identify “What Works” based on nearly 40 years of work evaluating criminal justice reform efforts.

The last fifty-plus years have seen considerable efforts and resources expended to enact reforms to the criminal justice system. Some of the earliest reforms of this era were driven by dramatic increases in violence leading to more punitive policies. More recently, reform efforts have focused on strategies to reduce the negative impacts of policing, the disparate impacts of pretrial practices, and better strategies for reducing criminal behavior. Renewed interest in strategies and interventions to reduce criminal behavior has coincided with a focus on identifying “what works.” Recent increases in violence have shifted the national dialog about reform. The shift may be due to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 epidemic or concerns about the United States returning to the escalating rise in violence and homicide in the 1980s and 1990s. Whichever proves true, the current rise of violence, at a minimum, has changed the tenor of policymaker discussions, from a focus on progressive reforms to reduce reliance on punitive measures and the disparate impact of the legal system on some groups to a focus on increased investment in “tough on crime” criminal justice approaches.

It is, then, an interesting time for those concerned about justice in America. Countervailing forces are at play that have generated a consistent call for reform, but with profound differences in views about what reform should entail. The impetus for reform is myriad: Concerns about the deaths of Black Americans by law enforcement agencies and officers who may employ excessive use of force with minorities; pressures to reduce pretrial incarceration that results in crowded jails and detention of those who have not been found guilty; prison incarcerations rates that remain the highest in the Western world; millions of individuals who live under community supervision and the burden of fees and fines that they will never be able to pay; and, in the aftermath of the worst pandemic in more than a century, increasing violence, particularly homicides and gun violence. This last change has led to fear and demands for action from communities under threat, but it exists alongside of other changes that point to the need for progressive changes rather than reversion to, or greater investment in, get-tough policies.

How did we get here? What have we learned from more than 50 years of efforts at reform? How can we do better? In this essay, I offer some reflections based on my nearly 40 years of evaluating criminal justice reform efforts. 1

Part I: Waging “War”

The landscape of criminal justice reform sits at the intersection of criminal behavior and legal system response. Perceptions of crime drive policy responses. Perceptions of those responsible for crime also drive responses. And perceptions of those responses result in demands for change. To establish context for the observations that follow, this section describes trends in crime, the population of justice-involved individuals, and the expenditures supporting the sprawling criminal justice enterprise in the United States since the mid-to-late twentieth century.

But first, my perspective: Over the last nearly 40 years, I have observed justice system reform efforts since working, while a first-year graduate student in 1983, on a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) grant that funded a randomized control trial of what would now be termed a reentry program (Lattimore et al., 1990 ). After graduate school, I spent 10 years at NIJ, where I was exposed to policy making and the relevance of research for both policy and practice. I taught for several years at a university. And, for most of my career, I have been in the trenches at a not-for-profit social science research firm. Throughout my career, I have conducted research and evaluation on a broad array of topics and have spent most of my time contemplating the challenges of reform. I’ve evaluated single programs, large federal initiatives, and efforts by philanthropies to effect reform. I’ve used administrative data to model criminal recidivism to address—to the degree statistical methods allow—various dimensions of recidivism (type, frequency, and seriousness). I’ve developed recidivism models for the practical purpose of assessing risk for those on community supervision and to explore the effects of covariates and interventions on recidivism and other outcomes. I’ve participated in research attempting to understand the shortcomings of and potential biases in justice data and the models that must necessarily use those data. While most of my work has focused on community corrections (e.g., probation and post-release interventions and behavior) and reentry, I have studied jail diversion programs, jail and pretrial reform, and efforts focused on criminal record expungement. These experiences have illuminated for me that punitiveness is built into the American criminal justice system—a punitiveness that traps many people from the time they are first arrested until they die.

Crime and Correctional Population Trends

The 1960s witnessed a dramatic rise in crime in the United States, and led to the so-called “War on Crime,” the “War on Drugs,” and a variety of policy responses, culminating with the passage of the Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth-in-Sentencing Act of 1994 (“The 1994 Crime Act”; Pub. L. 103–322). Figure  1 shows the violent crime rate in the United States from 1960 to 1994. 2 In 1960, the violent crime rate in the United States was 161 per 100,000 people; by 1994 the rate had increased more than four-fold to nearly 714 per 100,000. 3 As can be seen, the linear trend was highly explanatory (R-square = 0.96)—however, there were two obvious downturns in the trend line—between 1980 and 1985 and, perhaps, between 1991 and 1994.

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US Violent Crime Rate, 1960–1994

Homicides followed a similar pattern. Figure  2 shows the number of homicides each year between 1960 and 1994. In 12 years (1960 to 1972), the number of homicides doubled from 9,100 to 18,670. By 1994, the number had grown to 23,330—but it is worth noting that there were multiple downturns over this period, including a drop of more than 4,000 between 1980 and 1984. These figures show the backdrop to the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Crime” that led reformers to call for more punitive sentencing, including mandatory minimum sentences, “three-strikes laws” that mandated long sentences for repeat offenders, and truth-in-sentencing statutes that required individuals to serve most of their sentences before being eligible for release. This was also the period when the 1966 Bail Reform Act, which sought to reduce pretrial detention through the offer of money bond, was supplanted in 1984 by the Pretrial Reform Act, which once again led to increased reliance on pretrial detention.

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United States Murder and Non-negligent Manslaughter Rate, 1960–1994

The 1994 Crime Act, enacted during the Clinton Administration, continued the tough-on-crime era by enabling more incarceration and longer periods of incarceration that resulted in large increases in correctional populations. In particular, the Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth-in-Sentencing (VOI/TIS) Incentive Grant Program, funded by the Act, provided $3 billion to states to expand their jail and prisons capacities between FY1996 and FY2001 and to encourage states to eliminate indeterminate sentencing in favor of laws that required individuals to serve at least 85% of their imposed sentences.

Figure  3 shows the dramatic rise in the number of state and federal prisoners prior to passage of the 1994 Crime Act—the number of prisoners more than tripled between 1980 and 1994. 4 The increase in numbers of prisoners was not due to shifts from jail to prison or from probation to prison, given that all correctional populations increased dramatically over this 14-year period—jail populations increased 164% (183,988 to 486,474), probation increased 166% (1,118,097 to 2,981,022), and parole increased 213% (220,438 to 690,371).

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State and Federal Prisoners in the US, 1960–1994

So, what happened after passage of the 1994 Crime Act? Fig.  4 shows the violent crime rate from 1960 through 2020. As can be seen, the decrease in the violent crime rate that began prior to passage of the 1994 Crime Act continued. And, notably, it preceded the influx of federal funding to put more police on the streets, build more jails and prisons, and place more individuals into the custody of local, state, and federal correctional agencies. Even with a small increase between 2019 and 2020, the violent crime rate in 2020 was 398.5 per 100,000 individuals, well below its 1991 peak of 758.2. 5

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United States Violent Crime Rate (violent crimes per 100,000 population), 1960–2020

Figure  5 shows the US homicide rate from 1960 to 2020. Consistent with the overall violent crime rate, the homicide rate in 2020 remained well below the peak of 10.2 that occurred in 1981. (Rates also may have risen in 2021—as evidenced by reports of large increases in major U.S. cities—but an official report of the 2021 number and rate for the U.S. was not available as of the time of this writing.) The rise in this rate from 2019 to 2020 was more than 27%— worthy of attention and concern. It represents the largest year-over-year increase between 1960 and 2020. However, there have been other years where the rate increased about 10% (1966, 1967, 1968, 2015, and 2016), only then to drop back in subsequent years. Further, it is difficult to determine whether the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused massive disruptions, is a factor in the increase in homicides or to know whether the homicide rate will abate as the pandemic ebbs. Finally, it bears emphasizing that during this 60-year period there have been years when the homicide rate fell by nearly 10% (e.g., 1996, 1999). From a policy perspective, it seems prudent to be responsive to increases in crime but also not to over-react to one or two years of data—particularly during times of considerable upheaval.

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United States Murder and Nonnegligent Manslaughter Rate, 1960–2020

The growth in correctional populations, including prisoners, that began in the 1970s continued well into the twenty-first century—in other words, long after the crime rate began to abate in 1992. Figure  6 shows the prison population and total correctional population (state and federal prison plus jail, probation, and parole populations summed) between 1980 and 2020. Both trends peaked in 2009 at 1,615,500 prisoners and 7,405,209 incarcerated or on supervision. Year-over-year decreases, however, have been modest (Fig.  7 ), averaging about 1% (ignoring the steep decline between 2019 and 2020). The impact of factors associated with COVID-19, including policy and practice responses, resulted in a 15% decrease in the numbers of state and federal prisoners and a 14% decrease in the total number of adults under correctional control. Based on ongoing projects in pretrial and probation, as well as anecdotal evidence related to court closures and subsequent backlogs, it is reasonable to assume that some, if not most, of the decline in populations in 2020 was due to releases that exceeded new admissions as individuals completed their sentences and delays in court processing reduced new admissions. To the extent that these factors played a role, it is likely that in the immediate near term, we will see numbers rebound to values closer to what prevailed in 2019.

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United States Prison and Total Correctional Populations, 1980–2020

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Year-over-Year Change in Prison and Total Correctional Populations, 2981–2020

Responding with Toughness (and Dollars)

The increase in crime beginning in the 1960s led to a political demand for a punitive response emphasized by Richard Nixon’s “War on Crime” and “War on Drugs.” In 1970, Congress passed four anticrime bills that revised Federal drug laws and penalties, addressed evidence gathering against organized crime, authorized preventive detention and “no-knock” warrants, and provided $3.5 billion to state and local law enforcement. 6 Subsequent administrations continued these efforts, punctuated by the Crime Act of 1994. As described by the U.S. Department of Justice:

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 … is the largest crime bill in the history of the country and will provide for 100,000 new police officers, $9.7 billion in funding for prisons and $6.1 billion in funding for prevention programs …. The Crime Bill provides $2.6 billion in additional funding for the FBI, DEA, INS, United States Attorneys, and other Justice Department components, as well as the Federal courts and the Treasury Department. 7

Much of the funding went to state and local agencies to encourage the adoption of mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes” laws, and to hire 100,000 police officers and build prisons and jails. This funding was intended to steer the highly decentralized United States criminal justice “system” towards a more punitive approach to crime; this system encompasses all levels of government (local, state, and federal) and all branches of government (executive, judicial, legislative).

The nation’s crime rate peaked in 1992. So, this “largest crime bill in the history of the country” began a dramatic increase in funding for justice expenditures just as crime had already begun to decline. Figure  8 shows that expenditures increased roughly 50% in real dollars between 1997 and 2017—from $188 billion to more than $300 billion dollars (Buehler,  2021 ). 8 More than half of that increase-—$65.4 billion additional—went to police protection. Roughly $50 billion additional went to the judiciary and corrections.

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United States Justice Expenditures, 1997–2017

So, what did these increases buy? Dramatically declining crime rates (Figs. ​ (Figs.4 4 and ​ and5) 5 ) suggest that numbers of crimes also declined. That can be seen in Fig.  9 , which shows offenses known and an estimate of offenses cleared for selected years between 1980 and 2019. 9 In 1991, there were 11,651,612 known property offenses and 1,682,487 known violent offenses—these numbers declined 47% and 34% by 2019.

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Offenses Known and Cleared in the US, Selected Years 1980–2019

Declining numbers of crimes and dramatic increases in expenditures on policing and justice system operation would suggest that there should have been improvements in offense clearance rates during this time. This did not happen. Crime clearance rates stayed roughly constant, which means that the numbers of offenses cleared declined by percentages like declines in the number of offenses over this period—49% for property offenses and 33% for violent offenses. More than 750,000 violent offenses and more than 2 million property offenses were cleared in 1991 compared to about 500,000 violent offenses and 1 million property offenses in 2019.

Presently, as violent crime ticks up, we are hearing renewed calls for “tough-on-crime” measures. Some opinion writers have compared 2022 to Nixon’s era. Kevin Boyle noted:

[Nixon] already had his core message set in the early days of his 1968 campaign. In a February speech in New Hampshire, he said: “When a nation with the greatest tradition of the rule of law is torn apart by lawlessness, when a nation which has been the symbol of equality of opportunity is torn apart by racial strife … then I say it’s time for new leadership in the United States of America.” There it is: the fusion of crime, race and fear that Nixon believed would carry him to the presidency. 10

Responding to the recent increase in violent crime, President Joseph Biden proposed the Safer America Plan to provide $37 billion “to support law enforcement and crime prevention.” 11 The Plan includes more than $12 billion in funds for 100,000 additional police officers through the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program. This proposal echoes the “100,000 cops on the street” that was a centerpiece of the 1994 Crime Act, which created the COPS office and program. Unlike the 1994 Crime Act, however, the Safer America Plan does not include funding for prisons and jails. Both the 1994 Crime Act and the Safer America Plan address gun violence, strengthen penalties for drug offenses, and provide support for programs and interventions to make communities safer and to address criminal recidivism.

The previous 50 or 60 years witnessed reforms efforts other than these that largely focused on bolstering the justice system infrastructure. The 1966 Bail Reform Act sought to reduce pretrial detention through the offer of money bond, but subsequently was supplanted by the 1984 Pretrial Reform Act that once again promoted pretrial detention. 12 This century—as jail populations exceeded 700,000, with most held prior to conviction—there has been considerable attention to eliminate money bond, which disproportionately leads to pretrial detention for poor and marginalized individuals (and release for the “well-heeled”). Private philanthropy has led much of this focus on pretrial and bail reform. For example, the MacArthur Foundation has spent several hundred million dollars on their Safety and Justice Challenge since 2015 with a goal of reducing jail populations and eliminating racial and ethnic disparity. 13 The Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) took a different approach and has invested substantial sums in the development and validation of a pretrial assessment instrument (the Public Safety Assessment or PSA) that provides assessments of the likelihood an individual will fail to appear to court or be arrested for a new crime or new violent crime if released while awaiting trial. 14 Although assessment algorithms have been criticized for lack of transparency and for perpetuating racial bias, the PSA scoring algorithm is publicly available and has not shown evidence of racial bias in a series of local validations conducted by RTI for LJAF. New York and New Jersey are among the states that have attempted to reduce reliance on money bond. However, as violent crime has increased, these efforts have faced considerable pushback.

The bail bonds industry has been a vocal opponent of efforts to reduce or eliminate the use of money bond. This industry is not the only one that profits from the imposition of punishment. As Page and Soss ( 2021 ) recently reported, “Over the past 35 years, public and private actors have turned US criminal justice institutions into a vast network of revenue-generating operations. Today, practices such as fines, fees, forfeitures, prison charges, and bail premiums transfer billions of dollars from oppressed communities to governments and corporations.” Fines, fees, and forfeitures generally profit the governments and agencies that impose them—although supervision fees to private probation services benefit businesses, as do fees for electronic monitoring, and drug testing. The Prison Policy Institute reports that there are more than 4,000 companies that profit from mass incarceration. 15 Court and supervision fees can quickly add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars, burdening people with crushing debt and the threat of jail if they don’t pay. 16 There can be other consequences as well. After Florida passed a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to individuals once they had completed their carceral or community sentence, the State specified that the right to vote would not be restored until an individual had paid all outstanding fees and fines. In addition, mistakenly voting with outstanding fees and fines is a felony. 17

Other work to reform pretrial justice includes early provision of defense counsel, and implementation of diversion programs for individuals charged with low-level offenses or who have behavioral health issues. The sixth amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees criminal defendants in the United States a right to counsel. In some jurisdictions (and the Federal court system), this is the responsibility of an office of public defense. In others, private defense counsel is appointed by the Court. Regardless, public defense is widely understood to be poorly funded. As noted by Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy currently working to improve access to defense, “The resulting system is fragmented and underfunded; lacks quality control and oversight; and fails to safeguard the rights of the vast majority of people charged with crimes who are represented by public defenders or indigent counsel.” 18

Mental health problems are prevalent among individuals incarcerated in local jails and prisons. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, in a report by Bronson and Berzofsky ( 2017 ), reported that “prisoners and jail inmates were three to five times as likely to have met the threshold for SPD [serious psychological distress] as adults in the general U.S. population.” Bronson and Berzofsky further reported that 44% of individuals in jail reported being told they had a mental disorder. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s GAINS Center has been at the forefront of efforts to implement jail diversion programs for individuals with mental health or substance use disorders and has also played a significant role in the establishment of treatment courts. 19 Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) for law enforcement to improve interaction outcomes between law enforcement and individuals in crisis. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) notes that “The lack of mental health crisis services across the U.S. has resulted in law enforcement officers serving as first responders to most crises. A Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) program is an innovative, community-based approach to improve the outcomes of these encounters.” 20 Non-law enforcement responses—such as the CAHOOTS program that was developed in Eugene, Oregon—to certain calls for service are also being tested in multiple communities. 21 Despite multiple efforts to identify appropriate alternatives to jail, individuals with mental health disorders continue to disproportionately fill the nation’s jails.

A Recapitulation

The 1970 crime bills that passed early in Nixon’s presidency set the stage for the infusion of federal dollars that has provided billions of dollars in funding for police and prisons. Between 1970 and 1994, the number of adults in state and federal prisons in the United States increased from less than 200,000 to nearly 1 million. In 2019, that number stood at more than 1.4 million down from its peak in 2009. Another 734,500 individuals were in jail and more than 4.3 million were in the community on probation or parole. Although representing a dramatic decline since these populations peaked about 2009, this still means that more than 6 million adults were under the supervision of federal, state, and local corrections agencies in 2019.

Thus, it is important to recognize that we are at a very different place from the Nixon era. Today, the numbers (and rates) of individuals who are “justice-involved” remain at near record highs. As the progressive efforts of the twenty-first century encounter headwinds, it is worth waving a caution flag as the “remedies” of the twentieth century—more police, “stop and frisk,” increased pretrial detention—are once again being proposed to address violent crime.

Part II: Finding “What Works”

The 1994 Crime Act and subsequent reauthorizations also included funding for a variety of programs, including drug courts, prison drug treatment programs, and other programs focused on facilitating reentry and reducing criminal recidivism. Subsequent legislation authorized other Federal investments that resurrected rehabilitation as a goal of correctional policy. The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) provided $100 million (and some limited supplements) to agencies to develop programs that began in prison and continued into the community and were intended to improve outcomes across a range of domains—community reintegration, employment, family, health (including mental health), housing, substance abuse, supervision compliance and, of course, recidivism (see Lattimore et al., 2005b ; Winterfield et al., 2006 ; Lattimore & Visher, 2013 , 2021 ; Visher et al., 2017 ). Congress did not reauthorize SVORI but instead authorized the Prisoner Reentry Initiative (PRI) managed by the U.S. Department of Labor; PRI (now the Reintegration of Ex-Offenders or RExO program) provides funding for employment-focused programs for non-violent offenders. In 2006, a third reentry-focused initiative was funded—the Marriage and Incarceration Initiative was managed by the Department of Health and Human Services and focused on strengthening marriage and families for male correctional populations. In 2008, Congress passed the Second Chance Act (SCA) to provide grants for prison and jail reentry programs. The SCA grant program administered by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) was reauthorized in 2018; it continues to provide reentry grants to state and local agencies (see Lindquist et al., 2021 ). These initiatives all primarily focused on supporting efforts at the state and local level. The First Step Act of 2018 focused on reforms for the federal prison system. These efforts signified a substantial increase in efforts aimed at determining “what works” to reduce criminal behavior—and provided an opportunity to rebut the “nothing works” in correctional programming that followed the publication of research by Lipton ( 1975 ).

Elsewhere, I have summarized some of the research into Federal initiatives that I have conducted over the years (Lattimore, 2020 ). These studies comprise work in dozens of states, involving thousands of individuals and have included studies of drug treatment, jail diversion, jail and prison reentry, and probation. Some involved evaluation of a substantial Federal investment, such as the multi-site evaluation of SVORI.

These evaluations, as has been largely true of those conducted by others, have produced mixed results. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses focusing on the effectiveness of adult correctional programming have yielded findings of modest or negligible effects (e.g., Aos et al., 2006 ; Bitney et al., 2017 ; Lipsey & Cullen, 2007 ; MacKenzie, 2006 ; Sherman, et al., 1997 ). In an updated inventory of research- and evidence-based adult programming, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (Wanner, 2018 ) identified a variety of programs for which evidence suggests significant if modest effect sizes. As has been identified by others (e.g., MacKenzie, 2006 ), the most effective programs focused on individual change, including, for example, cognitive behavior therapy (estimated effect size of -0.11). Treatment-oriented intensive supervision programs were found to reduce recidivism by about 15%, while surveillance-oriented intensive supervision was found to have no demonstrated effects. Several types of work and educational programs (correctional industries, basic adult education, prison-based vocational education, and job training and assistance in the community) were found to reduce recidivism between 5 and 22%. Most non-zero treatment effect sizes were between about 5% and 15%. Lipsey and Cullen ( 2007 ) also suggest 14% to 22% reductions in recidivism for adult rehabilitation treatment programs.

Two thoughts about these small effects warrant consideration. The first, of course, is why reducing criminal behavior appears to be so difficult. Second, however, is that, in recognizing the first, perhaps we should adapt more realistic expectations about what can be achieved and acknowledge that even small effects can have a meaningful impact on public safety.

Challenges: Why Is Effective Criminal Justice Reform So Difficult?

One issue with most federal funding streams is “short timelines.” For example, typical of grant programs of this type, SVORI grantees were given three years of funding. During this time, they had to develop a programmatic strategy, establish interagency working arrangements, identify program and service providers, develop a strategy for identifying potential participants, and implement their programs. Three years is a very short time to develop a program that incorporates needs assessment, provides a multiplicity of services and programs within an institution, and creates a path for continuation of services as individuals are released to various communities across a state.

The “short timelines” problem underlies, and contributes to, a variety of other considerations that can plague efforts to identify “what works.” Based on my experiences, these considerations, which I discuss further below, include the following:

  • People: Justice-involved individuals have multiple needs and there is an emerging question as to whether addressing these needs is the best path to desistance.
  • Programs: Interventions often lack adequate logic models and are poorly implemented.
  • Methods: Evaluations frequently are underpowered and unlikely to scale the alpha 0.05 hurdle typically used to identify statistically significant effects.

First, it is important to recognize that justice-involved individuals face serious and complex challenges that are difficult to remedy. Many scholars have highlighted the myriad of challenges faced by individuals returning to the community from prison (e.g., see Petersilia, 2003 ; Travis, 2005 ; Travis & Visher, 2005 ). In interviews conducted with 1,697 men and 357 women who participated in the SVORI multisite evaluation, 95% of women and 94% of men said at the time of prison release that they needed more education. Nearly as many—86% of women and 82% of men—said they needed job training. More than two-thirds indicated that they needed help with their criminal thinking and three-quarters said they needed life skills training. They were somewhat less likely to report needing substance use disorder or mental health treatment but still—at the time of prison release—66% of the women and 37% of the men reported needing substance use treatment and 55% of the women and 22% of the men reported needing mental health treatment.

Half of these individuals had participated in SVORI programs while incarcerated and the proportions reported reflect their self-assessment of need after in-prison receipt of programming. Figure  10 shows the percentages of SVORI and non-SVORI groups who reported receiving a select set of services and programs during their incarceration. Several things standout: (1) The receipt of programs and services during incarceration was much less than the indicated need at the time of release; and (2) SVORI program participants were more likely to report receiving services than the comparison group members who were not in SVORI programs.

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Self-reported service receipt during incarceration for SVORI program evaluation participants. Note: * =  p  <  = 0.05. Educ = educational programming, EmplSrv = employment-related services, CrimAtt = programs for criminal attitudes including cognitive behavior therapy, LifeSk = life skills, AODTx = substance abuse treatment, and MHTx = mental health treatment. Sample sizes were SVORI men (863), non-SVORI men (834), SVORI women (153) and non-SVORI women (204).

Source: Lattimore & Visher (2009)

More recently, Lindquist et al. ( 2021 ) completed a seven-site evaluation of Second Chance Act reentry programs that were a mix of jail- and prison-based programs. About half of the study participants reported having received substance use disorder treatment and about one-third reported having received mental health treatment. At release, they reported limited-service receipt. For example, there was no significant difference between receipt of educational programming (23% of SCA program participants compared with 17% for comparison group members). SCA program participants were more likely to report receiving any employment services (60% versus 40%), which included job assistance, employment preparation, trade or job training programs, vocational or technical certifications, and transitional job placement or subsidized employment. SCA program participants were also more likely to report receiving cognitive behavioral services (58% versus 41%). But, again, not all program participants received services despite needing them and some comparison subjects received services.

Limited access to treatment by program participants and some access to treatment by comparison subjects were also observed in a multi-site study of pre- and post-booking jail diversion programs for individuals with co-occurring substance use disorder and serious mental illness (Broner et al., 2004 ; Lattimore et al., 2003 ). Across eight study sites, 971 diverted subjects and 995 non-diverted subjects were included in this evaluation; the research found only modest differences in the receipt of services and treatment at 3- and 12-months follow-up. For example, at the 3-month interview, 26% of both groups reported receiving substance abuse counseling, and at the 12-month interview, 0.7% of those diverted versus no non-diverted participant received two or more substance abuse counseling sessions. At 3 months, 38% of the diverted subjects and 30% of the non-diverted reported mental health counseling versus 41% and 38% at 12 months, respectively.

The service needs expressed by these individuals reflect their lack of education, job experience, vocational skills, and life skills, as well as the substance abuse and mental health issues identified among justice-involved individuals. The intervention response to these needs is reflected in the variety of services prescribed in the typical “reentry program bucket.” These involve the services and programs shown in Fig.  10 , as well as case management and reentry planning to coordinate services with respect to needs.

The identification of needs followed by efforts to meet those needs underlies the Risk-Needs-Responsivity (RNR) approach to addressing justice-involved populations (e.g., Andrews & Bonta, 1994 , 2006 ; Latessa, 2020 ). The RNR approach to addressing criminal behavior is premised on the assumption that if you address identified needs that are correlated with criminal behavior, that behavior will be reduced. In other words, recidivism can be addressed by providing individuals the education and job skills and treatment they need to find gainful employment, reduce substance use, and mitigate symptoms of mental illness. Latessa ( 2020 ) recently discussed the RNR approach, reiterating the importance of assessing individual criminogenic and non-criminogenic needs to improve reentry programs. He also reiterated the importance of focusing resources on those identified as high (or higher) risk by actuarial risk assessment instruments—pointing to important work he conducted with colleagues that found that interventions reduced recidivism among high-risk individuals and increased it among low-risk individuals (Lowenkamp & Latessa, 2002 ; Latessa et al., 2010 ). This approach to reentry programming is reflected in the requirements of most federal grants—like the SVORI and SCA—that require programs to incorporate reentry planning that includes needs assessment and services that address criminogenic and non-criminogenic needs.

As noted, most justice-involved individuals have limited education and few job skills, and many have behavioral health issues, anger management issues, and limited life skills. But if addressing these deficits is the key to successfully rehabilitating large numbers of individuals caught in the carceral and community justice system, the meager results of recent research suggests two possibilities. First, this is the right approach, but poor or incomplete implementation has so far impeded findings of substantial effects (a common conclusion since the Martinson report). Second, alternatively, this approach is wrong (or insufficient), and new thinking about the “what and how” of rehabilitative programming is needed. I address the second idea next and turn to the first idea shortly.

MacKenzie ( 2006 ) and others (e.g., Andrews and Bonta, 2006 ; Andrews et al., 1990 ; Aos et al., 2006 ; Lipsey, 1995 ; Lipsey & Cullen, 2007 ) have stressed that programs focused on individual change have been found to be effective more often than those providing practical services. The SVORI evaluation also found support for this conclusion. Services we classified as “practical” (e.g., case manager, employment services, life skills, needs assessment, reentry planning, and reentry program) were associated with either no or a deleterious impact on arrest chances—although few were statistically different from a null effect. Individual-change services (e.g., anger management, programs for criminal attitudes including cognitive behavior therapy, education, help with personal relationships, and substance abuse treatment) were associated with positive impacts on arrest. The original SVORI evaluation had a follow-up period of about 2 years and findings suggested that the overall impact of SVORI program participation on rearrest and reincarceration were positive but not statistically significant. In contrast to these findings, a longer follow-up that extended at least 56 months showed participation in SVORI programs was associated with longer times to arrest and fewer arrests after release for both men and women. For the men, SVORI program participation was associated with a longer time to reincarceration and fewer reincarcerations, although the latter result was not statistically significant ( p  = 0.18). For the women, the reincarceration results were mixed and not significant.

Support for positive impacts of programs focused on individual change are consistent with theories associated with identity transformation and desistance from criminal activity. Bushway ( 2020 ) has recently discussed two alternative views of desistance, contrasting the implications of desistance either as a process (i.e., the gradual withdrawal from criminal activity) or reflective of an identify shift towards a more prosocial identity. In examining these two ideas, Bushway posits that the second suggests that individuals with a history of a high rate of offending may simply stop (as opposed to reducing the frequency of criminal acts). If individuals do (or can or will) stop, the implication is clear: policies that focus on an individual’s criminal history (e.g., for employment or parole decisions) may fail to recognize that the individual has changed. This change may be evidenced by in-prison good behavior (e.g., completing programs and staying out of trouble) or positive steps following release (e.g., actively seeking meaningful employment or engaging in positive relationships). Tellingly, Bushway ( 2020 ) notes: “Individuals involved in crime get information about how they are perceived by others through their involvement in the criminal justice system. Formal labels of ‘criminal’ are assigned and maintained by the criminal justice system. As a result, identity models are much more consistent theoretically with an empirical approach that revolves around measures of criminal justice involvement rather than criminal offending per se.” He goes on to discuss the relationship of identity-based models of stark breaks and criminal career models. In short, reflecting insights that labeling theorists have long emphasized, the labels the criminal justice system and society place on individuals may impede the desistance process that is the supposed goal of the system.

The second consideration are concerns about program design and implementation—What is the underlying logic model or theory of change? Is there adequate time to develop the program and train staff to implement it appropriately? Is the resulting program implemented with fidelity? The two or three years usually provided to implement complex programs suggest that these goals are unlikely to be met. The “notorious” findings of Martinson (1975) that “nothing works” was more appropriately interpreted as “nothing was implemented.” Unfortunately, nearly 50 years later, we largely observe something similar—not “nothing” but “something” that is far short of what was intended.

As discussed in detail by Taxman (2020), the usual approach to program development and testing skips over important formative steps, doesn’t allow time for pilot testing, and provides little opportunity for staff training or for achievement and maintenance of program fidelity (if there is even a program logic model). From an evaluator’s perspective, this short timeline imposes multiple challenges. An evaluator must identify study participants (and control or comparison subjects), follow them largely while they are in the program, and hope to have at least one year of post-program follow-up—generally without being able to accommodate the impact of likely weak implementation on evaluation power to detect effects.

Thus, it may not be surprising that effects are generally small. However, these small effects may not be negligible from a public safety perspective. In a study of the effects of non-residential drug treatment for a cohort of probationers, Lattimore et al. ( 2005a ) found that treatment reduced the number of probationers with a felony arrest by 23% during the first year and 11% over the first two years. The total number of arrests was also reduced by 17% over 12 months and 14% over 24 months. “Back of the envelope” calculations suggested that if treatment cost $1,000 per individual, it would have been cost effective to provide treatment to all members of the cohort as long as the (average) cost of arrest (and all related criminal justice processing and corrections) exceeds about $6,463.

Another example is to consider that the impact of a treatment effect in the 10% range applied across all prison releases would imply the aversion of many crimes. For example, assuming 750,000 prison releases each year over a five-year period and a 66% rearrest rate within 3 years (and no additional arrests after 3 years), then 3.75 million prisoners will be released over the five years; of these individuals, 2.475 million will be arrested at least once during the three years following release. A 10% reduction in first-time rearrests would mean 247,500 fewer first-time rearrests. To the extent that many offenders are arrested multiple times, this figure represents a lower bound on the number of averted arrests. A similar analysis could be conducted assuming 2,000,000 probation admissions each year and a 39% rearrest rate within 3 years. In this case, there would be 10,000,000 probation admissions that would generate 3.9 million first-time arrests over the three years after admission to probation. A 10% reduction in first-time rearrests would mean 390,000 fewer arrests. In total, therefore, reducing recidivism—as measured by rearrest by 10% for these hypothetical correctional populations—would translate into 637,500 averted arrests. Extrapolating further and assuming that roughly 10% of the arrests were for violent crime and 90% for property crime, and applying the inverse of the crime clearance rates for these two types of crime to generate a “crimes averted” count, we find that a 10% reduction in recidivism for these two populations would translate into 140,110 violent and 3,519,939 property crimes averted. 22 Thus, “modest” improvements in recidivism may provide substantial public benefits—in crimes averted, and lower demands on law enforcement, prosecution, and correctional resources. 23

The third consideration is the adequacy of the evaluation methods we routinely apply to this complex problem of inadequate interventions that are partially and sometimes poorly implemented. At minimum, we need to explicitly recognize the impacts of the following:

  • Programs partially implemented and partially treated control conditions.
  • Recidivism outcomes conditioned on an intermediate outcome.
  • Follow-up periods too short to accommodate short-term failure followed by long-term success.
  • Focusing on a binary indicator of recidivism ignores frequency and seriousness of offending.

The impact of partial treatment of both treatment and control groups on effect sizes and the consequential impact on statistical power is seldom discussed—either in initial estimates of needed sample sizes or in subsequent discussions of findings. As shown earlier and is true for most justice evaluations, the control or comparison condition is almost never “nothing.” Instead, it is generally “business as usual” (BAU) that means whatever the current standard of treatment entails. Thus, the treatment group may receive some services that aren’t available to the control group, but in many cases both groups have access to specific services and programs although the treatment group may get priority.

As we saw in Fig.  10 , treatment was reported by some individuals in both the SVORI and non-SVORI groups. Table ​ Table1 1 shows the implications of partial treatment using data from the SVORI evaluation. 24 The percent treated for the SVORI and non-SVORI men are shown in columns three and four. Column 2 presents the effect sizes for four interventions as identified by Wanner ( 2018 ). If we assume that the recidivism rate without treatment is 20%, 25 the observed recidivism rate for the SVORI and non-SVORI men as a result of receiving each treatment is shown in columns four and five. Column six shows that the observed differences in recidivism between the two groups in this “thought experiment” are less than two percent—an effect size that would never be detected with typical correctional program evaluations. 26

Hypothetical treatment effects with incomplete treatment of the treatment group and partial treatment of the comparison group, assuming untreated recidivism rate is 20 percent

* Estimates from Wanner ( 2018 ).

Similar findings emerge when considering the effects on recidivism of interventions such as job training programs that are intended to improve outcomes intermediate to recidivism. Consider the hypothetical impact of a prison job training program on post-release employment and recidivism. The underlying theory of change is that training will increase post-release employment and having a job will reduce recidivism. 27 Suppose the job training program boosts post-release employment by 30% and that, without the program, 50% of released individuals will find a job. A 30% improvement means that 65% of program participants will find employment. Randomly assigning 100 of 200 individuals to receive the program would result in 50 of those in the control group and 65 of those in the treatment group to find employment. (This outcome assumes everyone in the treatment group receives treatment.) Table ​ Table2 2 shows the treatment effect on recidivism under various assumptions about the impact of employment on recidivism. The table assumes a 50% recidivism rate for the unemployed so, e.g., if the effect of a job is to reduce recidivism by 10% employed individuals will have a recidivism rate of 45%. If there is no effect—i.e., recidivism is independent of being employed—we observe 50% failure for both groups and there is no effect on recidivism rates even if the program is successful at increasing employment by 30%. On the other hand, if being employed eliminates recidivism, no one who is employed will be recidivists and 50% of those unemployed will be recidivists—or 25 of the control group and 17.5 of the treated group. The last column in Table ​ Table2 2 shows the conditional effect of job training on recidivism under the various effects of employment on recidivism shown in column 1. The effects shown in the last column are the same regardless of the assumption about the recidivism rate of the unemployed. So, employment must have a very substantial effect on the recidivism rate to result in a large effect on the observed recidivism rate when, as is reasonable to assume, some members of the control group who didn’t have the training will find employment. As before, this finding underscores the need to carefully consider the mechanism affecting recidivism and potential threats to effect sizes and statistical power.

Hypothetical effects of job training on employment and recidivism assuming job training increases employment by 30% and control (untreated) employment is 50%

A third concern is that follow-up periods which typically are 2 years or less may be too short to observe positive impacts of interventions (Lattimore & Visher, 2020). Although this may seem counterintuitive, it is what was observed for the SVORI multisite evaluation. The initial SVORI evaluation focused on the impact of participation with at least 21 months of follow-up following release from prison and showed positive but insignificant differences in rearrests for the SVORI and non-SVORI groups. A subsequent NIJ award provided funding for a long-term (at least 56 months) examination of recidivism for 11 of the 12 adult programs (Visher et al., 2017 ; also see Lattimore et al., 2012 ). In contrast to the findings in the original study, participation in SVORI programs was associated with longer times to arrest and fewer arrests after release for both men and women during the extended follow-up period of at least 56 months. Although untestable post hoc, one plausible hypothesis is that the early period following release is chaotic for many individuals leaving prison and failure is likely. Only after the initial “settling out period” are individuals in a position to take advantage of what was learned during program participation. In any event, these findings suggest the need to conduct more, longer-term evaluations of reentry programs.

A final consideration is the indicator of recidivism used to judge the success of a program. Recidivism, which is a return to criminal behavior, is almost never observed. Instead, researchers and practitioners rely on proxies that are measures of justice system indicators that a crime has occurred—arrest, conviction, and incarceration for new offenses—and, for those on supervision, violation of conditions and revocation of supervision. A recent National Academy of Sciences’ publication ( 2022 ) highlights some of the limitations of recidivism as a measure of post-release outcomes, arguing that indicators of success and measures that allow for the observation of desisting behavior (defined by the panel as a process—not the sharp break advanced by Bushway) should be used instead. These are valid points but certainly in the short run the funders of interventions and those responsible for public safety are unlikely to be willing to ignore new criminal activity as an outcome.

It is worth highlighting, however, some of the limitations of the binary indicator of any new event that is the usual measure adopted by many researchers (e.g., “any new arrest within x years”) and practitioners (e.g., “return to our Department within 3 years”). These simple measures ignore important dimensions of recidivism. These include type of offense (e.g., violent, property, drug), seriousness of offense (e.g., homicide, felony assault, misdemeanor assault), and frequency of offending (equivalent to time to the recidivism event). As a result, a typical recidivism outcome treats as identical minor acts committed, e.g., 20 months following release, and serious crimes committed immediately. Note too that this binary indicator fails in terms of being able to recognize desisting behavior, that is, where time between events increases or the seriousness of the offense decreases. Survival methods and count or event models address the frequency consideration. Competing hazard models allow one to examine differences between a few categories of offending (e.g., violent, property, drug, other). The only approach that appears to have tackled the seriousness dimension is the work by Sherman and colleagues (Sherman et al., 2016 ; also, see ) who have developed a Crime Harm Index that is based on potential sentences for non-victimless crimes. To date, statistical methods that can accommodate the three dimensions simultaneously do not, to my knowledge, exist. At a minimum, however, researchers should use the methods that are available to fully explore their recidivism outcomes. Logistic regression models are easy to estimate and the results are easily interpretable. But an intervention may be useful if it increases the time to a new offense or reduces the seriousness of new criminal behavior.

The last forty years or so have seen strides at identifying interventions that are promising, but much work remains to be done to find programs that result in substantial, broad-based improvements. Challenges in program development and implementation, partial treatment of treatment groups and control groups, and limited focus on recidivism as a binary indicator of failure were highlighted as some of the issues confronting practitioners and evaluators. 28 There is reason for optimism—if expectations are realistic from both a programmatic and methodological perspective: Identify promising programs, apply best practices of implementation science, calculate reasonable statistical expectations, and build on what has been tried.


In the past several decades, dramatic increases in crime resulted in large-scale legislative changes and expenditures. Correctional populations dramatically increased even as crime rates plunged. In addition, despite large increases in funding to law enforcement and other justice agencies, the number of offenses cleared declined. During this time, there were multiple federal initiatives focused on reducing criminal recidivism. Some, such as the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT) programs, focused singularly on reducing drug use, while others focused broadly on addressing the multi-faceted needs of justice-involved individuals.

These changes occurred in a context of a highly decentralized approach to criminal justice, one that creates a myriad of costs and incentives. For example, if a federally funded reentry program reduces crime, the immediate agency beneficiaries are local law enforcement (due to fewer crimes to solve), prosecution (due to fewer crimes to prosecute), and the courts (due to fewer cases to try). That can reduce admissions to prison. But for cost-savings to occur, agencies have to respond to reductions in crime by reducing costs. That tends to run counter to the natural inclination of administrators, especially if it means reducing staffing. And it runs counter to what happened as crime declined over the last roughly 30 years.

We increasingly have research evidence that some programs can reduce recidivism, but many challenges, such as underpowered research designs, sometimes undermines this evidence. Even so, it is important to note that even modest reductions in recidivism imply opportunities to avert substantial numbers of crimes and subsequent criminal justice system processing and costs.

This essay suggests that it is time to embrace the modest improvements in recidivism that have been forthcoming from programs that have been subjected to the most rigorous evaluations. And it suggests that it is time to downsize our expectations for a “silver bullet” and, instead, prepare for a long-term and sustained investment in programming that will improve, refine and augment programs and approaches that “work.” By using “what works” today as the basis for the successful adaptation of multi-faceted programs that address the multiplicity of offender needs, criminal justice policy and practice will develop the tools needed to help a heterogeneous population of prisoners successfully reenter their communities.

Finally, as policymakers grapple with a recent increase in violent crime, it is important to recognize that the “tough-on-crime” responses of the twentieth century led to a 252% increase in the number of citizens under legal system control—including a 312% increase in prison populations—between 1980 and 2000. Correctional populations peaked in 2008 but in 2019 remain 255% above 1980 levels with more than 6.5 million individuals in prisons, jails, or on probation or parole. 29 As the current administration proposes the Safer America Plan, it is important that proper attention be addressed to assure that the result of these expenditures is not to reinvigorate the mass incarceration and mass supervision that followed the adaptation of the as the 1984 Pretrial Reform Act and the Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth-in-Sentencing Act of 1994. And it is important that we attend to widespread support for high-quality implementation of programs that have been shown to reduce recidivism.

is a Principal Scientist with RTI International’s Justice Practice Area. She has more than 35 years of experience evaluating interventions, investigating the causes and correlates of criminal behavior, and developing approaches to improve criminal justice operations. She was principal investigator for multi-site, multi-method evaluations including the Multi-Site Evaluation of the Serious and Violent Offender Initiative, the Second Chase Act Adult Offender Reentry Demonstration Program Evaluation, and the HOPE Demonstration Field Experiment. She is principal investigator for research examining pretrial risk assessment, policy, and practice; state-level reforms for adult probation; implementation and impact of criminal record expungement; development and implementation of dynamic risk assessment algorithms for Georgia probation and parole; and the long-term impact of a three-state RCT of the 5-Key Reentry Program Model. She is a past Chair of the American Society of Criminology Division on Corrections and Sentencing, a Fellow of the Academy of Experimental Criminology, and a recipient of the American Correctional Association Peter P. Lejins Researcher Award, the American Society of Criminology Division on Corrections and Sentencing Distinguished Scholar Award, and the Academy of Experimental Criminology Joan McCord Award. Dr. Lattimore has published extensively, has served on the editorial boards of multiple journals, and was the inaugural co-editor of the annual series Handbook on Corrections and Sentencing published by Routledge Press.

Data Availability

1 Some of the ideas presented here were initially explored in Lattimore ( 2020 ) and Lattimore et al. ( 2021 ).

2 Data 1960 to 1984 are FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, prepared by the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data; downloaded March 5, 2006; data from 1985 to 2020 are from , downloaded July 12, 2022.

3 Violent crime commands the most attention and hence is the focus here, but property crimes are much more prevalent—directly affecting many more individuals. Property crime rates also increased in the 1960s and 1970s. The property crime rate increased from 1,726.3 per 100,000 in 1960 to 4,660.2 in 1994—an 170% increase. The property crime rate peaked in 1980 at 5,353.3 per 100,000—a 210% increase over 1960.

4 Data for 1960 and 1970 prisoners are from Cahalan, M.W. and Parsons, L.A. ( 1986 ). Data from 1980–2014 are from Glaze, L., Minton, T., & West, H. (Date of version: 12/08/ 2009 ) and Kaeble, D., Glaze, L., Tsoutis, A., & Minton, T. ( 2015 ). Data from 2015–2020 are from Kluckow, DSW, & Zeng, Z. (Date of version: 3/31/ 2022 ).

5 As noted in footnote 3, property crime rates also rose between 1960 and 1980—peaking at 5,353.3 per 100,000. With some minor fluctuations, the property crime rate has declined steadily since the 1980s and was 1958.2 per 100,000 in 2020.

6 The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 (PL 91–513); the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 (PL 91–452); the District of Columbia Court Reorganization and Criminal Procedure Act of 1970 (PL 91–358); and the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1970.


8 The trend shown in Fig.  9 continued a trend. Between 1982 and 1997, total justice expenditures increased 125% from $84.1 billion to $189.5 billion (2007 dollars), Kyckelhahn, T. ( 2011 ).

9 Data are from the FBI Crime in the United States publications for 1980, 1991, 1995, 2000, 2010 and 2019 . Numbers of offenses cleared were estimated by multiplying the offenses known by the offense clearance rates reported by the FBI.



12 For some thoughts on recommendations for reforms for pretrial and sentencing see Lattimore, Spohn, & DeMichele ( 2021 ). This volume also has recommendations for reform across the justice system.

13 Safety and Justice Challenge.



16 For an example of how a minor traffic offense can result in thousands of dollars in fines and fees for extensive terms of private probation see In Small-Town Georgia, A Broken Taillight Can Lead to Spiraling Debt—In These Times.

17 See for example,





22 In 2005, the Uniform Crime Reports reported 1,197,089 known violent offenses and 8,935,714 known property offenses or a ratio of about 1:9. Clearance rates were 45.5% for violent and 16.3% for property crimes known to police. The estimated total number of arrests for 2005 was 14,094, 186. Thus, the violent and property arrests account for about 72% of all arrests. Of course, these estimates rest on many assumptions—in some cases, these assumptions would imply that we are estimating the lower bound, since each member of our study population is allowed only one arrest while many will have many more than one. On the other hand, to the extent that individuals are arrested who have committed no offenses, the estimates would over represent the impact of a reduction in crime. The goal here was not to generate a precise estimate but to illustrate that a 10% reduction in recidivism translates into substantial reductions in crime.

23 A model-based estimate of the effect of non-residential drug treatment on 134,000 drug-involved individuals admitted to probation in Florida showed treatment reduced arrests by more than 20% (Lattimore et al., 2005a , 2005b ). This analysis was extended to a cost-effectiveness framework in which it was shown that it would be cost effective to spend $1000 treating all drug-involved probations as long as the average cost of an arrest averted (including arrest, and the costs of judicial processing and corrections) is at least $6,463.

where R = recidivism rate for the group, r = recidivism rate in the absence of treatment, T = percentage of group that is treated, and p = the percentage reduction in recidivism due to treatment (the treatment effect). Differences in outcomes are constant with respect to the assumed recidivism rate in the absence of treatment.

25 Differences in outcomes are constant with respect to the assumed recidivism rate without treatment.

26 Lipsey ( 1998 ) discusses the issue of underpowered evaluations.

27 A similar example was presented in Lattimore, Visher, & Steffey ( 2010 ).

28 Although not addressed here because of page limitations additional important methodological considerations include whether a comparison group exists for some interventions such as incarceration (see Lattimore & Visher 2021 for a brief discussion) and, even more challenging, whether replication is even possible given the heterogeneity of context and populations. For an interesting consideration of the implications of the latter for examining the impact of incarceration see Mears, Cochran & Cullen ( 2015 ).

29 Correctional populations dropped dramatically in 2020 as law enforcement and the criminal justice system adapted to COVID-19.

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criminal justice education journal

Doctorate Human Sciences, 2008, Université de Rennes II, Rennes, France Ph.D., Criminal Justice, 2007, Rutgers University, New Jersey M.A., Criminal Justice, 2003, Rutgers University, New Jersey M.A., Psychology, 2000, Université de Rennes II, Rennes, France B.A., Psychology, 1999, Université Catholique de l’Ouest, Angers, France

Melanie-Angela Neuilly, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology. Prior to joining the department in 2011, Dr. Neuilly taught for five years at the University of Idaho. She received a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice from Rutgers University in 2007, and a Ph.D. in Psychology from the Université de Rennes in France in 2008. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on criminological theory, criminal justice study abroad, homicide and violent crime, and research methods.

Generally speaking, Dr. Neuilly conducts comparative research on violence and violent death. More specifically, she is interested in issues surrounding measurement and data collection processes, particularly as they pertain to medico-legal practices of classifying death.

Dr. Neuilly is currently spending most of her research time focusing on the analysis of the data collected during her long-term comparative field research on medico-legal practices in France and in the United States. This project was partially funded by a WSU Seed Grant and an International Travel Research Grant from the WSU Office of International Programs. Over the course of ten years, Dr. Neuilly collected qualitative and quantitative information on investigations and post-mortem examinations of over 700 deaths at four sites: one large medical examiner’s office on the East Coast of the United States, one mid-sized coroner’s office in the American Intermountain West, one mid-sized medico-legal institute in the Western region of France, and one large medico-legal institute in the Southern region of France. Based on these data, Dr. Neuilly has identified the major differences between the medico-legal systems, as well as established influences pertaining to individual medico-legal practitioners’ characteristics.

Dr. Neuilly’s research helped inform SSB 5256 “The Confidentiality of Certain Autopsy and Postmortem Reports and Records,” which was passed during the 2013 Washington State Legislative session .

Aside from her main research focus, Dr. Neuilly also examines how research methodologies influence research findings in criminology, for example when it comes to establishing recidivism risk, or how qualitative methods open up new avenues for criminological research. In addition, Dr. Neuilly is also interested in general theoretical questions as well as feminist theorizations of crime.

Dr. Neuilly is also deeply engaged within her community, whether at the university level or in Moscow, Idaho, where she lives. Aside from fulfilling her departmental obligations, she has served as Chair of the WSU President’s Commission on the Status of Women, Chair of the WSU Task Force on Paid Parental Leave, as an At-Large representative for the WSU Faculty Senate, and most recently, was the Interim Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Development. In the community, Dr. Neuilly has served as Executive Board member at Moscow Day School, a parent-led daycare cooperative, and is a Moscow City Commissioner on the Fair and Affordable Housing Commission. In all these roles, she strives to promote social justice, gender equity, and anti-racism.

Courses Taught

Criminological Theory, Crime Control Policy, Research Methods, Qualitative Methods, Homicide, Comparative Criminal Justice, Criminal Justice Study Abroad.

Research Interests

Lethal violence; public health; medico-legal practices; mortality statistics; comparative criminal justice; qualitative methods.

Research Projects

Projects pertaining to the analysis of comparative data on medico-legal practices:

Death and taxes: The pervasiveness of inequities beyond life . This monograph is the culmination of Dr. Neuilly’s research on medico-legal practices, and her main sabbatical project. It will be directed toward a general audience, while maintaining the rigor expected of academic press publications.

Deaths Stories: A Text Mining Analysis of Autopsy Narratives . Both public health and criminological research heavily rest on the use of mortality statistics. Most often though, it is the numbers that are the focus of such scientific interest, reducing the depth of information present in autopsy files to continuous or dichotomized variables. In the present study, we provide criminologists and public health scientists with a different perspective on mortality data. Drawing from a sample of 720 autopsy reports collected from a coroner’s office and a medical examiner’s office, we present a qualitative content analysis of homicides, suicides, accidents, and natural deaths reports, offering a typology of themes present in each type of deaths. Such a typology provides the basis for further understanding how the death certification process influences the compilation of mortality statistics, which in turn are used in criminological and public health research. As such, we propose that a better understanding of the death certification process can lead to increasing the quality of mortality statistics, and thus the validity of research findings based on those data.

The representation of death as entertainment: Medical examiners as heroes. An important part of leisure implies an intellectual activity centered on the external stimulation of the imagination. Through this activity, individuals can escape everyday life with heroes living extraordinary lives, doing extraordinary deeds, thanks to extraordinary qualities… or they can identify with realistic characters dealing with situations similar to theirs in much the same way they would because they are alike. Who those heroes are and how they position themselves on the fantasy to reality continuum is not without social significance. In this realm of intellectual leisure, death has always had a role of central importance. Heroes, who always have to face death and battle it in order to right social wrongs, have evolved and reflect the times that sprung them. Investigators, attorneys, and medical examiners have replaced kings and knights in shining armors. As professionals of death, medical examiners’ battle is ex post facto, making death and the dead a central feature of the imaginative entertainment. The author proposes to examine the emergence of medical examiners as a new set of popular culture heroes in television programs from “Quincy” to “CSI” & co, “Bones” and “Crossing Jordan.”

Select Publications

Mothering from the Field . This edited volume published by Rutgers University Press surveys the experiences of women who have to conduct field research while parenting. The book’s main foci are policy recommendations and practical tips for aspiring field researchers in quest of work-life balance.

How Do Victims of Sexual Violence Benefit from Mutual Disclosure? An Exploratory Study of Women in South Korea , Journal of Interpersonal Violence , 2018.

Comprehensive Statue Analysis of Death Certification-Related Matters across all Fifty U.S. States , Journal of Forensic Sciences , 2018. Selected as 2018 Noteworthy Article by Journal Editors.

From doldrums to progressing knowledge: Identifying stifling issues in criminological theory building and testing , International Journal of Criminology and Sociological Theory , 2017.

Exploring the Characteristics of Violent Death Reports for Children in the United States , Child Abuse and Neglect, 2017.

Within and Inter-Institutional Difference Between Death Certifiers on Autopsy Conclusions , Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2016.

The Art of Conferencing , Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 2016.

The Reality of Field Research with a Family: Turning a Nightmare into Memories , The Criminologist – Criminology Around the World Feature, 2015.

Isolating Modeling Effects in Offender Risk Assessment , Springer Science , 2015

Violent Roots: Lethal Violence in Two Counties in Early Statehood Washington , Journal of Interpersonal Violence , 2014

Putting the Public Back in Public Health: An Argument for the Articulation of Fatality Reviews and Coroners’ Inquests , Homicide Studies , 2013

Predicting Recidivism in Homicide Offenders Using Classification Tree Analysis , Homicide Studies , 2011

Using a Comparative Framework to Understand Violence as a Social Construct , Victims and Offenders, A Journal of Evidence-Based Policies and Practices , July 2011

When Murder is Not Enough: Toward a New Definition of Community Violence , Aggression and Violent Behavior , 2007

Dr. Neuilly’s Book:

Mothering From The Field Book

Journal of Service-Learning in Higher Education

Unveiling the Transformative Power of Service-Learning: Student-Led Mental Health Roundtable Discussions as Catalysts for Ongoing Civic Engagement

  • April N. Terry Fort Hays State University
  • Ziwei Qi Fort Hays State University

This current study measured the impact of a one-time semester-long course-based civic engagement activity on student learning and participant impact, particularly participants' willingness to engage in community dialogue and promote awareness of social justice issues within their communities. The service-learning project involved on-campus and online students from three criminal justice courses and a hybrid format event titled " Finding Common Ground: Social Justice Issues Surrounding Mental Health & Mental Illness & Disorders " at a Midwestern teaching institution.The two-hour event included roundtable discussions to promote open dialogue about mental health and mental health illness and disorders. Learning and self-impact were measured via self-constructed questions and the Civic Engagement Short Scale Plus (CES 2+ ). Results indicated increased endorsement for community engagement and positive qualitative feedback on self-empowerment. The findings provide insights into the potential benefits of service-learning activities, such as mental health community roundtables, for fostering community dialogue, personal growth, and social justice activism. The insights gained from the current study can inform future planning and enhancement of civic engagement initiatives while also contributing to developing community-based education and outreach strategies.

  • Authors submitting articles to the Journal of Service-Learning in Higher Education are responsible for securing any permissions or licensing pertaining to the use of copyrighted materials and photographs/graphics. Authors of accepted articles assign the Journal of Service-Learning in Higher Education the right to edit, publish, and distribute their text on the Internet, to archive it, and make it permanently retrievable.
  • Authors do retain their copyright, so articles may be reprinted after publication as long as the Journal of Service-Learning in Higher Education is acknowledged as the original site of publication. Articles that have already been published or are being considered for publication elsewhere are not eligible for publication in the Journal of Service-Learning in Higher Education, unless a cross-publishing arrangement has been previously negotiated.
  • Opinions or points of view expressed in the publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the University of Louisiana System or institutions or organizations affiliated with the Journal of Service-Learning in Higher Education .

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  • Research Article
  • Open access
  • Published: 24 February 2024

Love after lockup: examining the role of marriage, social status, and financial stress among formerly incarcerated individuals

  • Jemar R. Bather   ORCID: 1 , 2 ,
  • Anna-Michelle Marie McSorley   ORCID: 1 ,
  • Brennan Rhodes-Bratton   ORCID: 1 ,
  • Adolfo G. Cuevas   ORCID: 1 , 3 ,
  • Saba Rouhani   ORCID: 1 , 4 , 5 ,
  • Ridwan T. Nafiu   ORCID: 1 , 4 ,
  • Adrian Harris   ORCID: 1 &
  • Melody S. Goodman   ORCID: 1 , 2  

Health & Justice volume  12 , Article number:  7 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

Metrics details

Upon reintegration into society, formerly incarcerated individuals (FIIs) experience chronic financial stress due to prolonged unemployment, strained social relationships, and financial obligations. This study examined whether marriage and perceived social status can mitigate financial stress, which is deleterious to the well-being of FIIs. We also assessed whether sociodemographic factors influenced financial stress across marital status. We used cross-sectional data from 588 FIIs, collected in the 2023 Survey of Racism and Public Health. The financial stress outcome (Cronbach’s \(\mathrm{\alpha }\) = 0.86) comprised of five constructs: psychological distress, financial anxiety, job insecurity, life satisfaction, and financial well-being. Independent variables included marital and social status, age, race/ethnicity, gender identity, educational attainment, employment status, and number of dependents. Multivariable models tested whether financial stress levels differed by marital and perceived social status (individual and interaction effects). Stratified multivariable models assessed whether social status and sociodemographic associations varied by marital status.

We found that being married/living with a partner (M/LWP, b = -5.2) or having higher social status (b = -2.4) were protective against financial stress. Additionally, the social status effect was more protective among divorced, separated, or widowed participants (b = -2.5) compared to never married (NM, b = -2.2) and M/LWP (b = -1.7) participants. Lower financial stress correlated with Black race and older age, with the age effect being more pronounced among M/LWP participants (b = -9.7) compared to NM participants (b = -7.3). Higher financial stress was associated with woman gender identity (overall sample b = 2.9, NM sample b = 5.1), higher education (M/LWP sample b = 4.4), and having two or more dependents (overall sample b = 2.3, M/LWP sample b = 3.4).


We provide novel insights into the interrelationship between marriage, perceived social status, and financial stress among FIIs. Our findings indicate the need for policies and programs which may target the family unit, and not only the individual, to help alleviate the financial burden of FIIs. Finally, programs that offer legal aid to assist in expungement or sealing of criminal records or those offering opportunities for community volunteer work in exchange for vouchers specific to legal debt among FIIs could serve to reduce financial stress and improve social standing.


In 2019, approximately 1,700 people were released from prison daily in the United States (Carson, 2020 ). Upon reintegration into society, formerly incarcerated individuals (FIIs) face a multitude of hardships, including significant legal financial obligations (Ginapp et al., 2023 ; Harper et al., 2021 ; Harris et al., 2010 ; Montes et al., 2021 ). According to one study, the average debt owed to the courts by FIIs exceeded $13,000 (deVuono-powell et al., 2015 ). To manage these payments and other living expenses, FIIs often depend on social support systems such as family members, friends, or spouses for financial assistance (Denney et al., 2014 ; Visher et al., 2004 , 2008 ; Western et al., 2015 ). However, these relationships can strain over time as FIIs experience extended periods of unemployment (Lindsay, 2022 ; Montes et al., 2021 ; Pager, 2003 , 2007 ).

Analyses of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth estimate that nearly half of unemployed men in the United States have a criminal history (Bushway et al., 2022 ). Research indicates that FIIs encounter challenges securing employment due to shorter work histories, lower educational attainment, and fewer credentials than those without a criminal background (Wakefield & Uggen, 2010 ). Findings from a randomized experiment showed that managers preferred hiring individuals without a criminal history, despite being equally qualified as an individual with a criminal history (Santos et al., 2023 ). Insufficient funding often hinders the effectiveness of interventions designed to increase employment among the unemployed (Edelman & Holzer, 2013 ). Even when FIIs secure employment, the position may offer inadequate compensation, not align with their skillset, or involve physically demanding tasks (Lindsay, 2022 ; Pager, 2003 ; Western, 2002 ; Western & Beckett, 1999 ). These employment challenges combined with other barriers such as loss of eligibility to apply for certain jobs, licences, student loans, and public benefits can result in substantive financial hardship among FIIs (Chin, 2012 ; Lerman & Weaver, 2014 ; Manza & Uggen, 2006 ; Mauer & Chesney-Lind, 2002 ; Rubinstein & Mukamal, 2001 ; Stafford, 2006 ).

Spouses often provide emotional and financial support to combat these hardships as FIIs reintegrate into society (Bannon et al., 2010 ; McKay et al., 2016 ; Mowen & Visher, 2016 ). However, literature suggests that these marriages are at an increased risk for divorce due to various factors (Apel et al., 2010 ; Geller, 2013 ; Lopoo & Western, 2005 ; Massoglia et al., 2011 ; Western, 2006 ; Western et al., 2004 ; Widdowson et al., 2020 ). Spouses may become weary from constantly supporting their partner through emotional and psychological challenges. FIIs often internalize stress, trauma, anxiety, and depression endured during their time in prison from negative interactions with correctional officers and fellow inmates (Binswanger et al., 2007 ; Visher et al., 2004 ). Also, the financial burden of incarceration can stress the marital relationship, leading to conflicts about money (Visher et al., 2004 ). For instance, marital problems may be more likely to arise in larger households with high unmet financial demands or under conditions created by prolonged unemployment, which compound chronic stress (Kraft, 2001 ; Twenge et al., 2003 ). This is supported by longitudinal analyses providing evidence that FIIs tend to be economically worse off post-release than before incarceration (Lösel et al., 2012 ; Markson et al., 2015 ; Souza et al., 2015 ). These analyses also highlight the demanding role of the spouse or partner in supporting a FII (Lösel et al., 2012 ; Markson et al., 2015 ; Souza et al., 2015 ). Souza et al. ( 2015 ) found that ex-partners of FIIs reported more post-release relationship problems than they initially anticipated during pre-release interviews. Spouses and partners may also witness their formerly incarcerated partner exhibiting cruel discipline towards their children (Markson et al., 2015 ). Another reason that these relationships may be at increased risk for separation or dissolution is that the spouse may be stigmatized and receive less social support from family members and friends as result of being married to a FII (Braman, 2004 ; Keene et al., 2018 ; Turney et al., 2012 ). The spouse may also constantly worry about their partner reoffending, leading to reincarceration (Goffman, 2009 ). These tensions and conflicts within the marriage can culminate in divorce, potentially leaving FIIs without financial support from their ex-spouse. Additionally, FII may perceive themselves as having lower societal status after the marriage is dissolved (Porter, 2014 ).

Perceived social ranking, or subjective social status (Adler et al., 2000 ), is important to examine among FIIs, particularly within the context of marriage and financial stress. It may serve as a protective factor among FIIs, as having a spouse and higher perceived social status can provide access to financial resources and professional networks (Conger et al., 2010 ). Research indicates that higher perceived social status is linked to better self-rated physical health (Ostrove et al., 2000 ). There is also evidence that subjective social status measures (e.g., MacArthur Scale) predict health and well-being outcomes better than traditional socioeconomic indicators, such as income and education (Garza et al., 2017 ; Singh-Manoux et al., 2005 ; Tan et al., 2020 ). In addition, subjective social status measures tap into constructs not captured by income and education variables (Galvan et al., 2022 ). Hence, analyzing perceived social status levels across different marital status groups may help us elucidate disparities in financial stress among FIIs and identify intervention opportunities. This is critical since medical issues among FIIs often go untreated due to financial hardship (Begun et al., 2016 ). Therefore, we analyzed a subsample of 588 FIIs from the 2023 Survey of Racism and Public Health to test associations between marriage, social status, and financial stress. We also assessed whether sociodemographic factors influenced financial stress across marital status groups.

Study population

We hired Qualtrics Research Services (QRS) to recruit participants, collect online survey data, and provide incentives to participants. The web-based cross-sectional survey collected sociodemographic information, self-reported experiences with discrimination, social status, financial and food insecurity, voting practices, policing experiences, and health. Our team provided QRS with the survey URL and back-end access to an institutional account to host and manage the data collection. Our research team did not recruit or interact with participants. QRS recruited qualified respondents from Qualtrics’ panel sources, based on the inclusion and exclusion criteria and sampling quota. Criteria for selecting the participants were as follows: 18 years or older, English-speaking/reading, and living in Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, Vermont, or Virginia (areas within Health and Human Services Regions 1, 2, or 3). The samling quotas provided to QRS were demographic variables that oversampled racial/ethnic minoritized groups. The following demographic quotas were requested from QRS: age (30% aged 18–34, 32% aged 35–54, and 38% aged 55 or older) and racial/ethnic (50% White, 20% Black, 20% Latinx, and 10% Other) groups. The survey went live in March 2023 and closed in April 2023 once the target demographic quotas were met. Profiling data for online survey participants were collected using larger internal surveys that were interspersed between client surveys according to QRS’ standard panel management practices. Panelists have joined the QRS panel through hundreds of different recruitment sources, including direct sign-up, co-registration offers on partners’ websites, targeted emails sent by online partners to their audiences, graphical and text banner placement on partners’ websites, trade show presentations, targeted postal mail invitations, TV advertisements, member referrals, and telephone recruitment of targeted populations. The survey consisted of 84 questions and the average time to survey completion was 15 min.

Over 9,000 individuals ( N  = 9,096) were recruited to complete the 2023 Survey of Racism and Public Health (Fig.  1 ). Of these, 44% did not consent to participate ( n  = 1,106), did not complete the survey ( n  = 542), or were removed through QRS data cleaning ( n  = 2,389). Reasons for removal through data cleaning included: non-sensical answers, duplicates, bots, contradictory responses, infeasible response values for weight or height, and invalid IP address. The remaining 56% ( n  = 5,059) consented to participate and completed the survey. Among these 5,059 study participants, 4,464 were excluded because of no incarceration history, and seven individuals were excluded because of missing outcome or condition information (outcome: n  = 6, marital status: n  = 1). The final analytic sample was selected based on participants who self-reported “yes” to “Have you ever been incarcerated?” This resulted in a sample of 588 FIIs. All study participants were compensated with cash, loyalty rewards, or gift cards by a QRS third-party vendor.

figure 1

Recruitment flow diagram, Survey of Racism and Public Health, 2023

  • Financial stress

We evaluated financial stress using an adapted version of the APR Financial Stress Scale (Heo et al., 2020 ), which consists of five constructs: psychological distress, financial anxiety, job insecurity, life satisfaction, and financial well-being (Table  1 ). Psychological distress was measured with the six-item Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K6) (Kessler et al., 2002 ), assessing feelings of sadness, nervousness, restlessness, hopelessness, effortfulness, and worthlessness over the past 30 days. Participants rated each item on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from (1) none of the time to (5) all of the time (Cronbach’s \(\mathrm{\alpha }\) = 0.91). The remaining constructs (financial anxiety, job insecurity, life satisfaction, and financial well-being) used a 5-point Likert scale from (1) strongly disagree to (5) strongly agree. Financial anxiety was measured using two items from the Financial Anxiety Scale (Archuleta et al., 2013 ): “I feel anxious about my financial situation” and “I worry about my financial situation” (Cronbach’s \(\mathrm{\alpha }\) = 0.87). Job insecurity was assessed using one item developed by Hellgren et al. ( 1999 ): “I am worried about having to leave my job before I would like to”. We measured life satisfaction using two items from the Satisfaction With Life Scale (Diener et al., 1985 ): “In most ways my life is close to my ideal” and “If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing” (Cronbach’s \(\mathrm{\alpha }\) = 0.71). Both life satisfaction items were reverse coded. We assessed financial well-being using four items derived from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Well-Being Scale (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 2015 ): “I could handle a major unexpected expense” (reverse coded); “Because of my money situation, I feel like I will never have the things I want in life”; “I can enjoy life because of the way I am managing my money” (reverse coded); and “Giving a gift for a wedding, birthday or other occasion would put a strain on my finances for the month” (Cronbach’s \(\mathrm{\alpha }\) = 0.69). Scores for each of the five constructs were summed to create a financial stress index (range: 18–72). Higher scores indicated greater financial stress. The overall financial stress index comprised of all five constructs demonstrated high reliability (Cronbach’s \(\mathrm{\alpha }\) = 0.86) (Tavakol & Dennick, 2011 ).

Marital and social status

Marital status was categorized as married/living with a partner, divorced/separated/widowed, or never married. We assessed perceived social status using the MacArthur Scale of Subjective Social Status – Adult Version (Adler et al., 2000 ). Participants ranked themselves from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest) on the following question: “Think of this ladder as representing where people stand in our society. At the top of the ladder are the people who are the best off, those who have the most money, the most education, and the best jobs. At the bottom are the people who are the worst off, those who have the least money, the least education, and the worst jobs or no job. Where would you place yourself on this ladder? Please select the number that best represents where you would be on this ladder.” Higher scores indicated higher perceived social status.

Sociodemographic characteristics

We recoded the following covariates for this analysis: age (quartiles: 18–36, 37–44, 45–57, 58–90), race/ethnicity (White, Black, Latinx, Multiracial/Other), gender identity (man, woman), educational attainment (≤ high school, some college, ≥ college degree), employment status (full/part-time, other), and number of dependents (0, 1, 2 +). Participants who identified as non-Hispanic American Indian, Native American, Arab, Middle Eastern, North African, Asian American, or Pacific Islander were categorized as “other” race/ethnicity. Those on temporary leave, unemployed, not working by choice, independent contractors, or business owners were categorized as the “other” employment status group.

Analytic strategy

Descriptive statistics were calculated for all variables. Kruskal–Wallis rank sum tests and Pearson’s Chi-squared tests were conducted to identify differences in characteristics by marital status. We used multivariable linear regression models to estimate the individual and combined effects of marital and social status (Hidalgo & Goodman, 2013 ). We also stratified these models to assess whether effects of social status and sociodemographics differed by marital status. We presented beta estimates with 95% confidence intervals. We used R (R Core Team, 2023 ) to perform all statistical analyses and set statistical significance at a p -value of < 0.05.

Study population characteristics

The 588 respondents had a mean age of 46 (SD = 14) and were primarily White (44%) or Black (28%) and idenitified as a man (69%) (Table  2 ). Of the 588 respondents, 47% were married/living with a partner, 33% were never married, and 20% were divorced/separated/widowed. Many of the respondents had some college education (61%), worked full/part-time (57%), and had at least one dependent (53%). The average financial stress score was 46 (SD = 11), and the average social status ranking was 5 (SD = 2).

We identified statistically significant differences in several characteristics across marital status groups. Compared to those who were divorced/separated/widowed (mean age = 53.4 years) or married/living with a partner (mean age = 46.2 years), those who never married tended to be younger (mean age = 41.5 years, P  < 0.001). Those who were never married (mean = 4.5) also ranked themselves lower on the social status ladder relative to those who were divorced/separated/widowed (mean = 4.7) or married/living with a partner (mean = 5.4, P  < 0.001). Never married participants (48% with HS diploma) had lower education than those who were divorced/separated/widowed (38%) and married/living with a partner (32%; P  < 0.001). A greater proportion of those who were divorced/separated/widowed (50%) identified as White (married/living with a partner = 48%, never married = 33%, P  < 0.001). A greater proportion of those who were married/living with a partner worked full or part time (63%), relative to those who were divorced/separated/widowed (40%) or never married (59%; P  < 0.001). Participants who were married/living with a partner (42% with 2 + dependents) tended to have more children (never married = 19%, divorced/separated/widowed = 16%, P  < 0.001).

Associations with financial stress

Table 3 summarizes the adjusted associations between financial stress, marital status, and social status in the overall sample. We observed statistically significant individual and interaction effects of marital and social status. Among the overall sample, lower financial stress correlated with being married/living with a partner (b = -5.2, 95% CI: -9.8, -0.6) and higher perceived social status (b = -2.4, 95% CI: -3.2, -1.7). The significant interaction effect (b = 0.9, 95% CI: 0.1, 1.8) suggests that the association between perceived social status and financial stress varied by marital status. Each increase on the perceived social status ladder translated to a steeper slope (lower financial stress, Fig.  2 ) among divorced/separated/widowed participants (b = -2.5, 95% CI: -3.4, -1.6) compared to never married (b = -2.2, 95% CI: -2.9, -1.5) and those married/living with a partner (b = -1.7, 95% CI: -2.3, -1.1; Table  4 ).

figure 2

Predicted mean scores of financial stress among formerly incarcerated individuals by marital and social status, adjusting for age, race/ethnicity, gender identity, education, employment status, and number of dependents, Survey of Racism and Public Health, 2023

We found that lower financial stress also correlated with older age (37–44 b = -3.5, 95% CI: -5.7, -1.2; 45–57 b = -4.3, 95% CI: -6.6, -2.0; 58–90 b = -7.7, 95% CI: -10.0, -5.1) and Black race (b = -2.9, 95% CI: -5.0, -0.8) in the overall sample. The association of older age, but not Black race, varied by marital status. The difference in financial stress between the 18–36 age group and the 58–90 age group was much larger among married/living with a partner participants (b = -9.7, 95% CI: -13.8, -5.7) than among never married participants (b = -7.3, 95% CI: -12.1, -2.4).

A positive correlation was found between women and financial stress in the overall sample, indicating that women (b = 2.9, 95% CI: 1.1, 4.7) tended to have higher financial stress than men. This association was larger among never married participants (b = 5.1, 95% CI: 2.1, 8.0). Higher education was associated with greater financial stress among participants who were married/living with a partner (b = 4.4, 95% CI: 1.0, 7.8). Lastly, having 2 or more dependents (b = 2.3, 95% CI: 0.1, 4.4) correlated with higher financial stress in the overall sample. This association was greater among participants who were married/living with a partner (b = 3.4, 95% CI: 0.1, 6.7).

Understanding the impact of marriage and social status on financial stress is important for promoting the well-being of FIIs. Analyzing data from the 2023 Survey of Racism and Public Health, we found statistically significant individual and interaction effects of marital and social status on financial stress. Specifically, being married/living with a partner or having higher perceived social status was protective against financial stress. However, the interaction effect suggested that the effect of social status was more protective among those who were divorced/separated/widowed compared to those who were never married and married/living with a partner. Findings suggest that bolstering family cohesion and promoting subjective social status may be important intervention opportunities to alleviate financial stress in this population.

The stronger protective impact of subjective social status on financial stress for divorced/separated/widowed individuals, compared to married or single individuals, may be attributed to various factors. Divorce or loss of a partner often leads to a loss of dual-income households, asset division, and potential legal expenses, creating significant financial burdens (Kelley et al., 2018 ). However, individuals who may have had higher social status before the marriage may experience significantly less financial stress due to their access to social resources, such as financial resources from an extended social network, emotional support outside of a marriage to overcome struggle, or broader community support.

The trends observed in financial stress for individuals of older ages, as well as respondents who identified as a woman, are consistent with previous literature (Harner et al., 2017 ; Holden et al., 2021 ; Sered & Norton-Hawk, 2019 ). Holden et al. ( 2021 ) found that older age was associated with lower financial stress, which aligns with our observations. The higher levels of financial stress that were observed among respondents who identified as a woman, were similarly observed in other empirical investigations (Harner et al., 2017 ; Sered & Norton-Hawk, 2019 ). For instance, a longitudinal qualitative study of 37 formerly incarcerated women in Massachusetts found that, over the course of a 10 year follow-up period, none of the women had been steadily employed. This was attributed to substantial health, legal, gendered, and economic barriers to employment (Sered & Norton-Hawk, 2019 ). Another qualitative study by Harner et al. ( 2017 ) reported that common financial stressors among incarcerated women included the inability to afford healthcare, low-wage jobs, and dependence on others. The collective findings from these studies and the present study characterize currently and formerly incarcerated women as a population needing additional attention and support. To further elucidate this gendered experience among FIIs, future studies could examine how this may be linked to the exclusion of individuals with felony convictions from social welfare benefits, as these exclusionary policies are known to have a disproportionate impact on single mothers (Morgan et al., 2023 ).

Insights from this study highlight the importance of improving health outcomes among FIIs. Chronic financial stress often coincides with prevalent chronic diseases such as asthma, obesity, and hypertension among FIIs (Houle, 2014 ; Howell et al., 2016 ; Massoglia, 2008 ; Visher et al., 2004 ; Wang et al., 2009 ). Managing chronic health conditions is expensive (National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2023 ), which in turn leads to the majority of FIIs failing to adequately take care of their health needs as they often lack health insurance after release (Massoglia & Pridemore, 2015 ; Massoglia & Remster, 2019 ; Visher et al., 2004 ). In the sample of the current study, 27% ( n  = 127) FIIs had one chronic disease, and 54% ( n  = 317) had two or more chronic diseases. Our study also suggests other stressors among this population such as low perceived social ranking. Studies have shown that financial stress and decreased social standing correlate with unhealthy behaviors, including increased rates of smoking and fast-food consumption among FIIs (Porter, 2014 ). Although outside of the scope of this study, these unhealthy behaviors, coupled with cumulative stressors before, during, and after incarceration demand immediate attention from health scientists and professionals to prevent high premature mortality rates among this population.

Our findings have several implications for intervention efforts to support the reintegration of FIIs into society in a manner that reduces financial stress and unnecessary burden on marital relationships. For instance, understanding that financial stress levels may vary by marital status, providing tailored couseling or financial literacy programs that are inclusive of spouses/partners of FIIs may improve the quality of social and marital relationships (Doleac, 2018 ; McKay et al., 2016 ). Outside of the marital relationship, efforts can also be made to reduce the societal burdens that lead to financial stress. For example, the Case Close Project in New York, supported by The Legal Aid Society, provides legal representation, community education, and advocacy and has successfully sealed hundreds of criminal records since 2017 (The Legal Aid Society,  n.d. ). Funding and replicating these types of programs across the U.S., has the potential to increase FIIs eligibility for employment opportunities and enable them to apply for federal programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Housing Choice Voucher Program (Mele & Miller, 2005 ).

Additionally, given the challenges associated with securing employment and the resulting financial strain, providing opportunities for FIIs to volunteer their skills in exchange for monetary vouchers to pay off their legal debt can alleviate their compounding criminal justice-related fees (Pager et al., 2022 ). These include late payments, local and state financial obligations, and public defender costs (Bannon et al., 2010 ), which serve to increase financial strain and marital stress. Importantly, evidence demonstrates that FIIs who are given the opportunity to help others (e.g., mutual help groups) have higher self-esteem, better psychological well-being, and report greater satisfaction with life (Lebel, 2007 ). Ultimately, these efforts may buffer the effects of financial strain after incarceration, reduce recidivism, and improve how FIIs perceive themselves in society.

Limitations and strengths

The findings of this study should be interpreted within the context of several limitations. First, we did not stratify by the length of time spent incarcerated, though this may impact levels of financial and marital strain and subjective social status. Second, we could not differentiate between married individuals before, during, or after their incarceration, which could have been a potential confounder. Third, our sample consisted of FIIs living in Northeastern or Southeastern states and was recruited as a nonprobability convenience sample, thus limiting the generalizability of this study. This self-reported survey was also subject to recall bias. This study should be interpreted as an exploratory analysis, warranting the need for future research with generalizable study designs. Fourth, indicating incarceration history on a survey may be a sensitive topic. This may have led to some FIIs choosing “no” to respond to the survey, potentially excluding them from the analytic sample. Fifth, the cross-sectional associations observed in this study do not imply causal relationships between marriage, social status, and financial stress. Lastly, we did not conduct a longitudinal analysis of financial stress, thus preventing us from exploring trends over time.

Despite its limitations, the present study has several strengths and makes innovative contributions to the literature. We analyzed a large sample ( n  = 588) of FIIs living in Health and Human Services Regions 1, 2, or 3, a densely populated area that accounts for approximately 20% of the US population. In addition, we utilized a multidimensional measure of financial stress (Heo et al., 2020 ), which has not been widely examined among FIIs. This measure encompasses five constructs: psychological distress, financial anxiety, job insecurity, life satisfaction, and financial well-being (Heo et al., 2020 ). Furthermore, the present study extends previous research by focusing on the financial strain of the FII, rather than that of the romantic partners and family members (e.g., children) of FIIs (Arditti et al., 2003 ; Comfort, 2008 ; Davis, 1992 ; deVuono-powell et al., 2015 ; Geller et al., 2011 ; Grinstead et al., 2001 ; Johnson, 2009 ). We also assessed the combined associations of marriage and social status as potential mechanisms producing disparities in financial strain among FIIs. Previous studies have primarily focused on the effect of incarceration on marriage quality or dissolution, with limited follow-up studies on married FIIs during reintegration (Apel et al., 2010 ; Braman, 2004 ; Geller, 2013 ; Lopoo & Western, 2005 ; Massoglia et al., 2011 ; Western, 2006 ; Western et al., 2004 ; Widdowson et al., 2020 ). By examining differences in financial strain across marital and social statuses during reintegration, vulnerable subgroups within the formerly incarcerated population can be identified and targeted for intervention. Lastly, we leveraged a novel dataset, the 2023 Survey of Racism and Public Health.

In conclusion, we provide novel insights into the interrelationship between marriage, social status, and financial stress among FIIs. We demonstrated that perceived social status and social support received through marriage or partnership were protective against financial strain, with varying effects of social status across marital status. Our research also indicates that formerly incarcerated women experience higher financial stress than men, highlighting the need for additional research and targeted programming to support this subgroup. Findings indicate the need for policies and programs which may target the family unit, and not only the individual, to help alleviate the financial burden of FIIs. Finally, programs that offer legal aid to assist in expungement or sealing of criminal records or those offering opportunities for community volunteer work in exchange for vouchers specific to legal debt among FIIs could serve to reduce financial stress and improve social standing.

Availability of data and materials

The dataset supporting the conclusions of this article can be obtained by emailing a request to the Center for Anti-racism, Social Justice, & Public Health ([email protected]).

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This study was funded by the Center for Anti-racism, Social Justice, & Public Health and the New York University School of Global Public Health.

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Jemar R. Bather, Anna-Michelle Marie McSorley, Brennan Rhodes-Bratton, Adolfo G. Cuevas, Saba Rouhani, Ridwan T. Nafiu, Adrian Harris & Melody S. Goodman

Department of Biostatistics, New York University School of Global Public Health, New York, NY, 10003, USA

Jemar R. Bather & Melody S. Goodman

Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, New York University School of Global Public Health, New York, NY, 10003, USA

Adolfo G. Cuevas

Department of Epidemiology, New York University School of Global Public Health, New York, NY, 10003, USA

Saba Rouhani & Ridwan T. Nafiu

Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research, New York University School of Global Public Health, New York, NY, 10003, USA

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JRB contributed to the conceptualization, methodology, software, formal analysis, investigation, writing—original draft, and visualization. AMM, BR, AGC, SR, RTN, and AH contributed to the conceptualization, investigation, resources, data curation, and writing—review, and editing. MSG contributed to the conceptualization, methodology, validation, investigation, resources, data curation, writing—review and editing, project administration, and funding acquisition.

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Correspondence to Jemar R. Bather .

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Bather, J.R., McSorley, AM.M., Rhodes-Bratton, B. et al. Love after lockup: examining the role of marriage, social status, and financial stress among formerly incarcerated individuals. Health Justice 12 , 7 (2024).

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  • Formerly incarcerated individuals
  • Criminal record
  • Marital status
  • Social status
  • Incarceration
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  • Psychological distress
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The Journal of Criminal Justice Education (JCJE) is an official publication of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS). JCJE provides a forum for the examination, discussion and debate of a broad range of issues concerning post-secondary education in criminal justice, criminology and related disciplines. The aim of JCJE is to enhance the quality of higher education in criminal justice and criminology. JCJE is an education-oriented journal for those undertaking educational and academic endeavors in the fields of criminal justice and criminology.

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We moved to Moscow looking for a community that we could be a part of where we could use our education in Emergency Management (myself) and Early Childhood (my wife). Moscow is a perfect fit for us and we want to be part of and give back to the community. My wife and I along with our daughter, struggled through the lockdown but through our faith, dedication to each other, we planned out how we would move during this trying time. We love being here and being a part of the Moscow community.

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Russian Court Rejects Wall Street Journal Reporter’s Appeal

It was the first time that Evan Gershkovich, a 31-year-old American, has been seen clearly since he was detained last month and accused of espionage.

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By Ivan Nechepurenko and Anton Troianovski

  • April 18, 2023

Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter arrested in Russia on suspicion of espionage, declared his innocence in a Moscow courtroom on Tuesday after flashing a smile from a glass defendant’s cage. It was his first public appearance since his detention last month, a new escalation in President Vladimir V. Putin’s conflict with the West.

The judge, as expected, denied Mr. Gershkovich’s appeal to lift his pretrial detention, leaving him in Russian custody. He was ordered back to Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, one of the most infamous detention centers in Russia, where inmates are held in isolation with only rare visits by lawyers.

The hearing was closed, but one of his lawyers, Maria Korchagina, told reporters that Mr. Gershkovich said he was ready to “assert his right for free journalism” and “to defend himself.”

Earlier on Tuesday, journalists were allowed into the courtroom where Mr. Gershkovich stood behind a pane of glass, with two masked officers in dark plainclothes to his right. Red handcuff marks were visible on his wrists. Dressed in jeans and a checkered shirt, Mr. Gershkovich blinked and nodded when one Russian reporter told him, “Evan, hold on!”

It was the first time that Mr. Gershkovich, a 31-year-old American, had been seen clearly since he was detained on March 29 while on a reporting trip in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg and accused of espionage, a charge his employer, the United States and press freedom groups vehemently reject.

“Evan is wrongfully detained, and the charges of espionage against him are false,” the leaders of The Journal and Dow Jones, the newspaper’s publisher, said in a statement . “We demand his immediate release and are doing everything in our power to secure it.”

The court appearance came on a day when both Ukraine and Russia released images of their presidents visiting the war zone as they attempted to present a show of strength. Mr. Putin visited Russian-occupied territory in the southern Kherson region of Ukraine on Monday, according to the Kremlin. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine traveled on Tuesday to the embattled town of Avdiivka, the scene of heavy fighting in recent weeks.

The Gershkovich case represents one of Mr. Putin’s most drastic attacks to date on freedom of the press. It is the first time that the Russian government has brought such serious charges against a journalist officially accredited by the country’s Foreign Ministry, and the first time a Western journalist in Russia has been charged with espionage since the Cold War.

U.S. officials are concerned that the case appears to signal an even more severe Kremlin crackdown on independent news outlets and the free flow of information within Russia. On Monday, in another escalation, a Moscow court sentenced Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Kremlin critic and Washington Post contributor, to 25 years in prison — an unusually harsh sentence that is longer than what is often given for murder.

Mr. Putin’s spokesman has claimed that Mr. Gershkovich was caught “red-handed,” an assertion that suggests the Kremlin, and Mr. Putin, approved of the arrest. The Russian authorities have not provided any evidence to support the accusations.

Outside the courtroom after the hearing, Mr. Gershkovich’s legal team said that the court had rejected an offer from Dow Jones to post a bond of 50 million rubles — $600,000 — on Mr. Gershkovich’s behalf. Tatiana Nozhkina, a lawyer for Mr. Gershkovich, along with Ms. Korchagina, said he was not guilty and later, in response to written questions, added that the legal team would appeal his arrest by filing a complaint about the lower courts’ decisions.

“He is in a fighting spirit,” Ms. Korchagina said. “He stated, accordingly, that he is ready to prove that he is innocent.”

Mr. Gershkovich was ordered held in prison until May 29, though the authorities can extend his detention.

Ms. Korchagina, who previously served in Russian law enforcement, and Ms. Nozhkina, an experienced criminal lawyer, work for the Moscow law firm ZKS, which was retained by Dow Jones to represent Mr. Gershkovich.

His case has brought relations between the United States and Russia to a new low. The Biden administration has asserted that he is “ wrongfully detained ” — which means that the U.S. government sees him as the equivalent of a political hostage held on fabricated charges — and has called for his immediate release. If convicted, Mr. Gershkovich faces up to 20 years in a Russian penal colony.

The pretrial investigation process could take months, experts say, and it will most likely be a year or more before a verdict is delivered.

Only once Mr. Gershkovich is sentenced, Russian officials have said, would the Russian government consider a prisoner exchange to release him. Acquittals in espionage cases in Russia are extremely rare, in a justice system in which high-profile prosecutions are used to advance the Kremlin’s agenda.

Speaking from the steps of the Moscow City Court building where the hearing took place on Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Lynne M. Tracy, said that it was “troubling to see Evan, an innocent journalist, held in these circumstances.” She said that the “charges against Evan are baseless” and added that the U.S. government was “calling on the Russian Federation to release him.”

A day earlier, Ms. Tracy met with Mr. Gershkovich at Lefortovo prison, his first consular visit since being detained. The visit followed repeated calls from the State Department for Russia to grant access to him.

Mr. Gershkovich’s lawyers said after the hearing that he was reading Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and watching Russian TV cooking shows about monastery cuisine, according to the Russian independent news outlet Media Zona. He has been receiving letters, Ms. Korchagina said, and answering them as time permitted.

“I want to say that I am not losing hope,” Mr. Gershkovich wrote in a two-page, handwritten letter that his family received last week, according to The Journal . “I read. I exercise. And I am trying to write. Maybe, finally, I am going to write something good.”

The case has prompted an outpouring of support for Mr. Gershkovich from colleagues, press freedom groups and international officials.

On Monday, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, condemned Mr. Gershkovich’s detention in a statement made on behalf of dozens of countries.

“We urge Russian Federation authorities to release those they hold on political grounds, and to end the draconian crackdown on freedom of expression, including against members of the media,” she said.

Ivan Nechepurenko has been a Times reporter since 2015, covering politics, economics, sports and culture in Russia and the former Soviet republics. He was raised in St. Petersburg, Russia, and in Piatykhatky, Ukraine. More about Ivan Nechepurenko

Anton Troianovski is the Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times. He was previously Moscow bureau chief of The Washington Post and spent nine years with The Wall Street Journal in Berlin and New York. More about Anton Troianovski


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