Criminal Justice Initiative: Promising methods

Author: Leigh Lynes

This is the last story in a three-part series on criminal justice and LEO's work in this space. Read part one (Rethinking community corrections) and part two (Our research agenda).


What can break the cycle of recidivism? LEO’s Criminal Justice Initiative seeks to identify the most promising programs, policies and practices. To do so, we will explore several existing stages in the criminal justice rehabilitation ecosystem: alternative courts, jails, and rehabilitation.

Alternative Courts: The cycle of recidivism begins the moment a person commits an offense. Alternative courts work with people who have committed certain crimes, for example those who are struggling with substance abuse, and intervenes to address the root causes of the arrests. Their approach is to avoid immediate jailing, and to instead negotiate therapeutic and productive solutions to stave off future offenses.

Jails: In 2014, 39% of convicted people spent an average of 31 days in jail. In addition to punishment, a month in jail can also be an opportunity to deliver targeted services to those in need before a more serious crime is committed. Unfortunately, most existing approaches are falling short. For example, only 14% of jail inmates have access to substance abuse services, although twice that amount were convicted of a drug offense.[1] Coordination of services between jails and outside organizations is key to reaching people in time for rehabilitation. How can these services be made more accessible and appealing to inmates, and how can interventions be leveraged to make those 31 days in jail as productive as possible?  

Rehabilitation: Rehabilitation must continue after release from jail—and it needs to be customized to people’s individual needs. Evidence suggests that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)—which addresses underlying issues that contribute to crime—can lower recidivism rates of frequent offenders. Mentorship programs also show potential for helping people develop effective strategies for coping with social pressures to reoffend. LEO will look to add to the canon of existing research on everything from text messaging reminders to GPS monitoring to determine what works and when.


As the size of the corrections population has exploded in the United States, policymakers, service providers, and those working directly in the local criminal justice system are looking for solutions. Today, we know too little about the most effective ways to successfully move people out of the correctional system. Through our Criminal Justice Initiative, LEO aims to identify and evaluate interventions that disrupt the cycle of recidivism to help justice-involved individuals lead more full and dignified lives.