1 percent of all prisoner reentry programs implemented in the United States in the last decade have been subject to a formal evaluation, and the vast majority of those did not use a randomized experimental research design. She writes that “using this ‘body’ of research to conclude anything about which reentry programs ‘work’ or ‘don’t work’ seems misguided” (2004, p. 7). A major impediment to knowledge about “what works” in increasing desistance is poor program implementation. Without proper implementation, as well as careful evaluation, one cannot determine whether a given program succeeds or fails in its conception, design, or operation.
These two themes of parolee heterogeneity and intervention effects frame our summary of what is known and what needs to be learned about the characteristics of parolees and of the programs and interventions intended to increase their desistance from crime. In addition to our summary of the research findings on parolees and desistance programs and our proposed agenda for future research on parolees and their desistance from crime, we offer a policy recommendation that is driven by the research findings.
We use a comparatively permissive criterion for classifying a given research finding on parolees and programs as established or settled “knowledge.” We include a research result in the category of “known” if it has been replicated across several studies and is not (or not any longer) subject to widespread dispute in the research community. A more restrictive criterion, for example, that any of the studies producing the result must meet the rigorous requirements of experimental science, would yield a much leaner knowledge base on the characteristics of parolees and effective programs. The difference is analogous to that between the “preponderance of evidence” and “beyond a reasonable doubt” evidentiary standard in jurisprudence. We adopt the former for organizing the extant research on parolees and desistance; however, for future research, we propose that, when feasible, it should be conducted and interpreted according to more rigorous standards of proof.
The need for more rigorous research methods in evaluating both prerelease and postrelease programs is beyond dispute, but the use of random designs does raise ethical questions in an environment that combines intervention and social control objectives. For example, a positive drug test typically triggers a sanction in most jurisdictions. Are treatments more restrictive or likelier to result in official sanctions than baseline parole conditions? These kinds of issues need to be thought out carefully in the design of experimental research. However, research suggests that ethical randomized designs are possible, especially where there is a standard program that can