he U.S. Justice Department made
headlines in October when it announced it would release some 6,000 inmates early from federal
prisons. The move was designed to reduce overcrowding and retroactively address the harsh
sentences that many drug offenders have received over the last three decades.
Unfortunately, the odds are long for those inmates, and for many thousands more who will
eventually leave prison and return to society.
Almost one of every 100 American adults is living behind
bars — about 2. 2 million people, according to a 2014 report
by the National Research Council. The vast majority will
eventually be released. Yet many won’t stay out for long. A
report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that
three-quarters of prisoners released in 2005 were arrested for a
new crime within five years. More than half had been arrested
by the end of the first year.
People leaving prison face a host of challenges, from
untreated mental illness and substance abuse disorders to
unemployment and lack of housing. “There doesn’t tend to
be a good handoff for individuals leaving the prison system,”
says Roger H. Peters, PhD, a professor of mental health law and
policy at the University of South Florida. “Reentry is always
going to be a challenge.”
Despite the challenge, reentry is an issue the nation can no
longer afford to ignore. Over the past two decades, state and
federal spending on corrections increased by more than 300
percent, to about $52 billion annually, according to a 2011 Pew
Center on the States report. Corrections is the second fastest-
growing area of state budgets, after Medicaid.
“Policymakers and criminal justice professionals are
recognizing that simply releasing someone into the community
and expecting them to be successful is not a recipe for
success,” says Robert Morgan, PhD, a psychologist who studies
correctional mental health at Texas Tech University.
Increasingly, states are experimenting with new ways to
address the complicated and costly problem of recidivism, or
relapse into criminal behavior. And psychologists are among the
scientists and clinicians best suited to design, test and deliver
An uphill climb
The list of obstacles is long for people released from prison.
Offenders often return to communities that are highly
distressed, with few employment options, high rates of violence