Research Provides A Roadmap for Community Investments to End Mass Incarceration

By: Evie Lopoo

Community Engagement Jail Populations November 26, 2021

A new research paper from the Square One Project at Columbia University offers the first comprehensive review of experimental social policy interventions that can end mass incarceration. The review demonstrates that greater investments in healthcare, education, employment, housing and social services – as well as increased scientific rigor in implementation – are needed to effectively decarcerate.

My colleagues Emily Wang, Laura Hawks, Lisa Puglisi, and I reviewed more than 23,000 research articles to produce the paper, “Towards A New Framework for Achieving Decarceration: A Review of the Research Literature on Social Investments.” We sought to answer the question: Which interventions into social policy (investments in housing, healthcare, employment, education, and social support programs) through community-led organizations have been shown to reduce incident incarceration or recidivism? The lack of research was stark: only 53 total papers fit our research protocol and were included in our findings.

Three intervention types had the most consistent and largest reductions in criminal legal system interaction:

  1. Early childhood education programs, particularly those that support parents

Some of the most effective early childhood interventions happen before a child is even born. Effective nurse-family partnerships help families stay healthy during pregnancy. Once the baby arrives, these nurses can help monitor important signifiers of good health and teach new mothers best practices in post-partum healthcare for both mother and child. Research indicates improved life outcomes, including decreased interaction with the criminal legal system, for both the mother and the child immediately following the intervention and decades later.

Likewise, the average layperson might not think great preschool programs are significant, but the research suggests that their impact is huge. The cognitive malleability of a preschool-aged child suggests that active stimulation and meaningful educational experiences at this age can improve well-being down the line, and research has proven this true. The research literature demonstrates that the most effective preschool programs are those that have structured, individualized curricula and provide “wraparound services,” or a direct line of communication between teachers and parents or guardians. This can be as simple as a teacher being able to ask a parent, “I’ve noticed that Sam seemed tired today and wasn’t as engaged with his friends as a consequence. Have you noticed a change of sleeping habits?” Parents and teachers can then work together to make sure the child’s full needs are met, in and out of the classroom. While interactions like these seem small or intangible, they are strong contributors to improving tangible measures of well-being.

  1. Community-based job placement specialists that help individuals re-entering society find stable, gainful employment

The research shows that it is not enough to give people just any kind of job as they are transitioning from justice system involvement and back into society. It turns out that gainful employment – jobs that are skilled, long-term, provide benefits like healthcare or retirement funds, and offer opportunities for promotion or managerial experience– is the only thing that really reduces criminal legal system interaction. Temporary, non-skilled work at low wages does not help in any significant way.

The most effective transitional employment programs for people reentering society from carceral settings are those that offer case management; in these situations, a case worker will partner with the reentering person to strategize, create resumes, practice interviewing, and even call potential employers to vouch for their suitability. Active collaboration between the reentering person and their case worker empowers people who are reentering to pursue jobs that feel meaningful and well-suited to their interests, skills, and lifestyle.

Likewise, there is heavy emphasis during reentry programming on obtainment of a high school diploma or certificate of General Educational Development (GED). But these do not significantly reduce recidivism – they do not provide many opportunities for meaningful employment. We found that existing research shows that people need an Associate’s or Bachelor’s-level degree to effectively overcome the stigmas they experience on reentering civilian life.

  1. Social services care coordination and Multisystemic Therapy

Multisystemic therapy (MST) has been studied in multiple samples of justice-involved youth people, with significant reductions in criminal legal system involvement demonstrated. During MST, young people participate in group or individualized therapy accompanied by psychosomatic medication if needed – essentially traditional cognitive behavioral therapy. In addition, their entire family is involved in their rehabilitation. This means extra sessions with a young person’s family, teachers, or other community members, or at least active communication between the parties and therapist. Because of this broader engagement, MST gives a fuller picture of a child’s socio-emotional context (e.g., “is this child acting out because of family hardship?”), and helps a therapist actively involve adults in the young person’s life in comprehensive care coordination.

What does this mean for the SJC Network?

People who are working to reduce jail populations – for example, as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge – are often siloed from people who make broader decisions about community-led investments in social supports. But our review of the research shows how efforts to reduce jail populations fit into a broader picture of how to effectively end mass incarceration. Reducing the number of people in jails and fortifying our social safety net are the twin pillars of decarceration. Cities and counties participating in SJC should continue actively engaging with community-led organizations providing social policy programming, as the work of SJC and its community counterparts is deeply connected.