The Effectiveness of Prison Programming: A Review of the Research Literature Examining the Impact of Federal, State, and Local Inmate Programming on Post-Release Recidivism

A California State Prison-Solano inmate installs a drought-tolerant garden in the prison yard on October 19, 2015 in Vacaville, California.
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INTRODUCTION

The First Step Act emphasizes the importance of BOP programming as a recidivism reduction strategy and includes sentence-reduction incentives for eligible inmates who participate in “evidence-based recidivism reduction programs.” This memorandum reviews available research about the recidivism reduction effects of federal, state, and local prison programming in an attempt to determine to what extent such programming can fairly be described as evidence-based. There are three distinct types of reviews that can be used to establish evidentiary criteria and determine “what works” in the area of prison programming (Byrne and Luigio, 2009).

The most rigorous such review would focus narrowly on the results of high quality, well-designed randomized control trials (RCTs) conducted during a specified period. A minimum of two RCTs demonstrating effectiveness (and a preponderance of lower-level research studies producing similar results) would be necessary before a determination could be offered about whether a particular program or strategy “worked.” This is the type of review strategy and scientific evidence relied on in the hard sciences. A second review strategy allows identification of a program as evidence-based (or working) if there are at least two quasi-experimental studies with positive findings, and the majority of lower-quality studies point in the same direction. This is the approach used in the reviews produced by the Campbell Collaborative. A variation on this approach—representing a third type of evidence-based review—is found on the DOJ CrimeSolutions.gov website, where a program will be described as effective based ona rating of each applicable research study by two independent reviewers. To be rated as effective, at least one high quality evaluation—RCT or well-designed quasi-experiment—needs to be identified. This memorandum adopts the second standard described above to summarize the research under review (see Appendix B), but we have also examined all studies and reviews of prison programs identified by CrimeSolutions.gov.

Included in this review is a careful look at the available evaluation research on the BOP programming, focusing on the 18 “national model” prison programs identified by BOP. Also included in this review is an examination of the much larger body of evaluation research conducted on the recidivism reduction effects of state and local prison programs. This memorandum offers summary assessments of all relevant evaluation research and corresponding recommendations for DOJ and BOP to consider as they move to implement high quality, evidence-based programming in the federal prison system.

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