Graduated sanctions help community corrections agencies ease offenders into successful community life

Because 95% of all prisoners will reenter our communities, facilitating a successful transition from incarceration to freedom is possible and necessary. Moreover, because these returning prisoners often move to clusters within urban areas, providing services for them is efficient through centralized community-based reentry centers.

Returning prisoners usually face five challenges: substance abuse, physical and mental health, negative peer pressure, employment and housing. For the most part, prisoners must manage these challenges alone, or they must rely on the voluntary efforts of citizens in the community. While the intentions are good, the results are predictably bad. The key to changing this trend is identifying candidates resistant to treatment and change who can succeed when offered the proper opportunities and support.

Because each individual presents unique needs and levels of risk, an effective program should be constructed after a thorough assessment of the offenders’ needs as they relate to criminogenic risk factors such as anti-social attitudes, anti-social peers, values and beliefs; and behavior characteristics such as egocentrism, lack of empathy and impulsivity. Employing a standardized risk assessment tool, such as the Level of Service Inventory-Revised (LSI-R), to identify the appropriate level of surveillance and support required for new parolees is the first step in creating a treatment and supervision plan – we call it a behavior change plan – that will best prepare them for successful reintegration.

Prison inmates live in a highly controlled environment where every aspect of their day is scheduled. Successful reentry programs take this into account and use a tethering technique when supervising parolees. Upon release, supervision requirements are very rigid, mimicking the regimented schedules inmates maintain within prison. Reentry programs should begin with daily reporting requirements and regular drug and alcohol tests. With time, as parolees progress through a reentry program by adhering to reporting requirements and complying with drug and alcohol restrictions, supervision requirements are “stepped down” and parolees earn more freedom and responsibility for decision-making. Should a parolee not comply with conditions of their release and make poor decisions, additional sanctions are applied. Assessed risk and needs should drive a parolee’s level of supervision.

While supervision helps drive compliance to sanctions, research shows that supervision without cognitive behavioral treatment is not effective in reducing recidivism. A multi-faceted approach that combines tethered supervision with treatment programming and immediate responses to both desirable and undesirable parolee behavior patterns, however, better prepares parolees for independence and successful community life.

Steven P. Merrefield is vice president of reentry and supervision services at BI Incorporated. He has more than 30 years of corrections experience in developing and managing specialized reentry and intensive supervision programs.