Criminal Justice Initiative: Rethinking community corrections

Author: Leigh Lynes

This is part one of a three-part series on criminal justice and LEO's work in this space. Read part two (Our research agenda) and part three (Promising methods).


The United States—the home of the free—is also home to a quarter of the world’s prisoners.[1] But prisoners are just the tip of the iceberg.

Only 23% of the people under control of the U.S. correctional system are inmates. The remaining 4.5 million adults—close to 2% of the U.S. adult population—are either on parole, on probation, or held in local jails. Not only is this broader system expensive to maintain, it also forms a vicious cycle: parole and probation violations are responsible for almost half of prison admissions.

While the national conversation on reform focuses primarily on prisons, solving mass incarceration must begin with a focus on community corrections. Today, we know too little about the role communities play in supporting and transforming the lives of those supervised by community corrections.

Which is why we’re getting involved.

LEO is teaming up with service providers in local criminal justice systems across the country to improve the lives of those in community corrections. True to our mission, we aim to identify and evaluate interventions that disrupt the cycle of recidivism to help justice-involved individuals lead more full and dignified lives.


Key to improving the correctional system are three commonly used tools for former criminals: parole and probation, substance abuse treatment, and workforce reentry programs:

Parole and Probation: When an individual is released from jail, they re-enter the community supervised by a correctional officer. Both probation and parole come with a number of time-sensitive requirements, such as drug-testing, notifying officers of changes in employment, and remaining within a defined geographic area. Any violation of these terms—such as committing a crime or leaving the state without notifying one’s supervising officer—can land an individual back in prison. Little rigorous evidence exists about best practices to reduce recidivism—a former prisoner’s relapse into criminal behavior—in these areas.

Substance Abuse Treatment: Substance abuse and criminal justice involvement often go hand-in-hand. But many programs that address substance abuse disorders are underutilized, and the effectiveness of different approaches is unknown. A 2014 study found that only half of community corrections departments made substance abuse treatment available.[2] Of the departments that offered treatment, less than 5% of the correctional population participated, and only 4% of individuals who needed the services could access them.

Workforce Reentry: Many correctional interventions focus on employment placement. These interventions are grounded in the idea that a job helps former prisoners provide for themselves and to develop a new, prosocial identity, such as an employee, parent, spouse, or neighbor. If their time is occupied, and if they can lean into a constructive identity, they may turn away from a life of crime. But little is known about the most effective strategies to impart soft skills or technical training to get—and maintain—gainful and impactful employment.


At LEO, we are committed to reducing poverty and improving lives through evidence-based policies and programs. By focusing our research on the broader correctional system, we seek to identify what’s most effective in breaking the relentless cycle of poverty, and to work towards a more just criminal justice system.


[2] Taxman, Faye, April Pattavina, and Michael Caudy. 2014. “Justice Reinvestment in the United States: An Empirical Assessment of the Potential Impact of Increased Correctional Programming on Recidivism.” Victims and Offenders: An International Journal of Evidence-based Research, Policy, and Practice 9, no. 1: 50-75.