Criminology Defining "Success" in Corrections and Reentry
Michaela Soyer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0280


Defining what exactly constitutes successful reentry into society is challenging. Is abstaining from criminal behavior enough to be considered a success? Or does a successful reentry imply more than desistance from crime, for example, the ability to live independently—without receiving substantial support from family or the government? What about those formerly incarcerated persons who desist for a significant period of time and then relapse unexpectedly? Should they be defined by their momentary failure? Research suggests that formerly incarcerated persons have a wide range of social welfare needs such as substance abuse problems, housing insecurity, and prolonged unemployment. Recent studies therefore conclude that reentry cannot be measured easily as a binary concept. Reentry, many contemporary criminologists argue, is a complex process marked by cycles of success and failure. By integrating concepts such as individual agency and identity formation, criminologists and sociologists have developed a more nuanced understanding of reentry processes. Qualitative research in particular challenges a dichotomous understanding of recidivism and desistance, emphasizing that reentering society after prison is a process marked by setbacks. In those studies, success or failure are not definitive verdicts, but rather momentary snapshots of pathways whose outcome remain uncertain.

General Overviews

Starting in the early 2000s, criminologists began to focus extensively on the reentry processes of formerly incarcerated individuals. The many studies published since then demonstrate the myriad ways social and structural circumstances can thwart a successful homecoming. According to Petersilia 2003, returning to the social environment that encouraged criminal behavior in the first place makes it very difficult to develop routines conducive to a life without crime. Therefore, as Travis 2005 argues, reentry needs to become the focal point of criminal justice policy. Other research focuses on variables that increase the likelihood of a successful reentry process. Uggen 2000 finds that gainful employment is key for desisting from crime. Yet, as Pager 2003 shows, having a criminal record significantly reduces the chances of finding work. For minorities who are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, this additional discriminatory “mark” makes a successful reentry even less likely. Western and Sioris 2019 confirms that reentering society successfully remains an elusive goal for many people of color. Controlling for several relevant indicators, such as health, level of education, and re-offending, formerly incarcerated persons of color still fare worse on the labor market than their white peers. To secure employment, many formerly incarcerated persons rely on family and friends. Berg and Huebner 2011 finds that a support network may be crucial for staying away from criminal behavior. Their work also indicates that familial ties impact both finding gainful employment and the likelihood of recidivism. Western, et al. 2015 points to the psychological costs of relying on a social network without being able to reciprocate support. Dependence on others takes an emotional toll, resulting in diminished feelings of self-worth and high levels of anxiety. More recent publications also focus on the social processes that shape post incarceration life trajectories. Western 2018 shows that the interplay between poverty and racial discrimination as well as the lack of a social support network make it difficult for the formerly incarcerated to rebuild their lives. Successful reentry is also closely connected to the respondents’ destination neighborhood. Using the impact of Hurricane Katrina as the basis of a natural experiment, Kirk 2012 demonstrates that those returning to a neighborhood that was not their home prior to incarceration were less likely to recidivate than former incarcerated persons who returned to their original place of residence. Leverentz 2019 focuses on how different spaces interact with reentry trajectories of newly released individuals. According to Leverentz the vulnerabilities of the formerly incarcerated are closely connected to the different activity spaces they pass through during their reentry process. Many of these recent studies describe desistance as a contingent process, shaped by intervals of recidivism and desistance from criminal behavior.

  • Berg, Mark, and Beth M. Huebner. 2011. Reentry and the ties that bind: An examination of social ties, employment, and recidivism. Justice Quarterly 28.2: 382–410.

    Berg and Huebner investigate the importance social ties have for the reentry process. The findings indicate that those inmates who found employment after their release and had strong social connections were less likely to recidivate. Being embedded in a strong social network also increased the chances of being employed during the studies follow-up period.

  • Kirk, David. 2012. Residential change as a turning point in the life course of crime: Desistance or temporary cessation. Criminology 50.2: 329–358.

    Using the displacement of a large segment of the population around New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as the basis for a quasi-experimental design, Kirk shows having to move to a new neighborhood post release significantly reduced recidivism among former convicts.

  • Leverentz, Andrea. 2019. Beyond neighborhoods: Activity spaces of returning prisoners. Social Problems 67.1: 150–170.

    DOI: 10.1093/socpro/spz005

    Based on fieldwork with the formerly incarcerated, Leverentz shows that it is necessary to understand the complex ways people manage their reentry across different places. Her typology of neighborhood-anchored, utility- or affective-anchored, and unanchored activity spaces encourages us to reconceptualize the role neighborhood context plays in the reentry process.

  • Pager, Devah. 2003. “The mark of a criminal record.” American Journal of Sociology 108.5: 937–975.

    Conducting an audit study in Milwaukee, Pager demonstrates that having a criminal record significantly reduces the chances of finding employment.

  • Petersilia, Joan. 2003. When prisoners come home: Parole and prisoner reentry. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Petersilia’s book is one of the first comprehensive treatments of prisoner reentry in the era of mass incarceration. She shows how the system of parole sets former inmates up for failure and further contributes to the ballooning prison population.

  • Travis, Jeremy, 2005. But they all come back: Facing the challenges of prisoner reentry. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press.

    As one of the foundational works covering prisoner reentry, Travis discusses the origins of mass incarceration and the impact the increased number of inmates has on reentry and the implications for policy reform.

  • Uggen, Christopher. 2000. Work as a turning point in the life course of criminals: A duration model of age, employment, and recidivism. American Sociological Review 65.4: 529–546.

    This article shows that finding employment signifies an important turning point for those released from prison. This effect is especially important for those formerly incarcerated individuals that are older than twenty-seven years.

  • Western, Bruce, Anthony Bragga, Jaclyn Davis, and Catherine Sioris. 2015. Stress and hardship after prison. American Journal of Sociology 120.5: 1512–1547.

    Based on interviews with former inmates in Massachusetts, the authors lay out the different challenges prisoners face as they are trying to reenter society. Western, Bragga, Davis, and Sioris emphasize that former prisoners often have to rely on public assistance or on female relatives to make ends meet. The inability to live independently negatively impacts the mental health of former inmates.

  • Western, Bruce. 2018. Homeward: Life in the year after prison. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    In Homeward Western and his research team follow male and female prisoners over the course of one year post release. Western finds that life after prison is shaped by material deprivation, addiction, and unemployment. Especially Latino and African American inmates face discrimination and have to struggle even harder than their white counterparts to find work and live independently.

  • Western, Bruce, and Catherine Sioris. 2019. Racialized re-entry: Labor market inequality after incarceration. Social Forces 97.4: 1517–1542.

    Western and Sioris demonstrate that race-based labor market discrimination after incarceration leads to significantly lower wages for formerly incarcerated blacks and Hispanics. Controlling for a wide range of variables such as level of education, job readiness, health, human capital, justice involvement, and social background shows that racial discrimination follows minorities throughout the prison system to the reentry process.

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