Voinovich researchers evaluate effectiveness of new recidivism reduction measures

Emily Bamforth
January 26, 2015

Nationwide, out of every 10 prisoners who have completed their time and walk out of correctional facilities, more than four will return.

According to a 2011 report by the Pew Research Center, if states could reduce the number of individuals stuck in a cycle of re-offense, they would save more than $635 million combined in one year.  Ohio took on the challenge and is showing declines in recidivism.

Enter the federal 2008 Second Chance Act grants, designed to fund programs that will reduce recidivism and improve the conditions for those returning from incarceration. Out of that pool of money, $666,460 was directed toward reducing recidivism rates in Ohio.

The Ohio Rural Recidivism Reduction (OR3) Project spanned eighteen months, implementing services in 10 Appalachian counties in order to address challenges faced by ex-convicts. OR3 participant recidivism rates were at 7 percent — as opposed to 11 percent in the comparison group.

“It’s definitely something of a pioneer program in Ohio,” said Tania Sherry, a rural reentry specialist with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. She added that most recidivism programs concentrate on urban communities and larger cities.

The program focused on providing resources to reentering citizens, but also created valuable connections between counties that had established recidivism programs and others in the area. Three counties, dubbed HUB counties, already had strong reentry coalitions, including Athens that served nearby counties as well.

The Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs conducted an evaluation of the project in association with faculty from the College of Health Sciences and Professions’ Department of Social and Public Health. Evaluation leads were Lesli Johnson and Aleksey Kolpakov, both assistant professors in the Voinovich School’s public administration program, and Solveig Spjeldnes, an assistant professor in Ohio University’s Department of Social and Public Health – Social Work program.

The study was mixed-method, meaning that along with collecting quantitative data about aspects of the program such as family composition and the services participants received, there was also a survey component in which researchers interviewed former prisoners who had reentered their communities.

Spjeldnes said one of the major issues found in reentering a rural community is finding a job. Many employers will not hire somebody who has been imprisoned, which is even more common in close-knit communities that already have low employment rates.

“When you go back home everybody knows you were incarcerated,” Spjeldnes said. “People have no idea how hard it is.”

OR3 tackled this problem by providing assistance with employment and/or further education for participants. Within the 10 participating counties, 380 programs were available to participants with services varying in each area.

The researchers found that transportation was also a major issue. Challenges include court fines and fees that must be paid prior to being allowed to obtain a driver’s licence, not having a job in order to pay for insurance or gas, or unreliable transportation to work. Public transport can serve as a solution to some of these problems, but most residents in rural areas don’t have that option. 

The most appreciated services provided through the program were transport-related, with gas cards topping the list followed by, assistance securing a driver’s licence, according to the Voinovich School report.

Another aspect of reentry is forming a support system in order to assist the person with the emotional challenges of coming home.

“We learned that case management is really essential,” Johnson said.

Case managers play a different role than a parole officer in the reentry process, providing an outlet for the person to ask questions, share their challenges, and obtain services to facilitate reentry.

“(OR3) helped me change my whole look at everything and helped me change my attitude,” a participant said, according to the evaluation. “My counselor [was] able to talk about everything and work on everything.”

The program is currently seeking new sources of funding to move the program along after being denied an implementation grant.  This has resulted in cutting services provided by OR3.  Two of the four case managers remain in the Hubs that serve the ten counties.

Continued efforts are taking place to obtain additional funding, said Johnson. She said, however, that relationships between the counties have resulted in some continued services, such as access to health care through Medicaid expansion and job placement assistance.  Lessons learned about coordinating and collaborating to assist returning citizens have continued to impact the reentry process.