Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
The new findings suggest that place-based policy interventions deserve a closer look.
Within three years of their release, two-thirds of ex-prisoners in America are arrested again, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Many complex and interconnected factors explain these alarmingly high rates of recidivism. One of the most significant, according to a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is whether or not the released prisoners lives in the same neighborhood as others parolees.
Here’s how David Kirk, sociology professor at the University of Oxford and author of the study, sums up his findings:
Put simply, the alarming rates of recidivism in the United States are partly a consequence of the fact that many individuals being released from prison ultimately reside in the same neighborhoods as other former felons.
In America, the prison system releases 650,000 people back into society each year. A significant share of the released tend to cluster in a few, extremely disadvantaged neighborhoods. It’s hard to test what would happen if these reentry patterns were different, but living conditions in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina gave Kirk that unique chance.
The disaster destroyed a lot of property, and in doing so, geographically redistributed the former-prisoner population. Instead of concentrating in the same places as they had before Katrina, ex-prisoners released after the storm spread out across new neighborhoods. Kirk compared the re-incarceration rates in neighborhoods that had seen a change in parolee concentration to ones that hadn’t, both before and after the hurricane. Here’s what he found:
The results of my analyses suggest the greater the concentration of ex-prisoners in a neighborhood, the greater the rate of subsequent recidivism. I find that concentrating former prisoners in the same neighborhoods leads to significantly higher recidivism rates than if ex-prisoners were more dispersed across neighborhoods.
Dispersing parolees across neighborhoods means that, to some extent, incarceration and recidivism rates will also rise in neighborhoods that gain ex-prisoners. The graph below illustrates this point: for each additional parolee per 1,000 residents in a neighborhood, the rate of re-incarceration rises about 11 percent. But after controlling for other factors that come into play across neighborhoods, Kirk found that net recidivism still came down.
Some formerly incarcerated people choose to go back to their old (often disadvantaged) neighborhoods for family connections and social networks. But “institutional and structural barriers,” such as state parole policies and housing market dynamics, also funnel ex-convicts into these areas, says Kirk. Many states legally require parolees to live in the county where they were convicted. Even if they relocate, parolees don’t have many options. They end up clustering in neighborhoods where rent is cheap and landlords are willing to have them sign on despite their criminal records.
Kirk puts it this way in the report:
The results presented in this study suggest that although parole and public housing policies and practices were designed, in principle, to enhance public safety, they may in fact be undermining it.
While recidivism is often linked to the individual traits of a person—such as their lack of education, skills, or tendency to engage in drug use—Kirk’s study suggests a person’s environment can play a major role in criminal outcomes. The results suggest that place-based policy interventions deserve a closer look, not just to prevent people fresh out of the prison system from going back in, but also to decrease overall criminal activity in certain high-crime, parolee-heavy neighborhoods. Kirk writes:
The extreme concentration of criminals in geographic space likely produces a contagion effect that not only leads to elevated rates of recidivism among existing criminals but also pulls the previously noncriminal toward deviance.