Focus Area: Family-Based Programs

Family members play a vital role in the reentry process. Programs focusing on the substance abuse, education, and employment needs of incarcerated individuals have long been regarded as important for reentry success, and interventions focusing on the family-related needs of this population have only recently gained widespread attention. Family-based reentry programs can take many forms, encompassing a variety of interventions aimed at strengthening relationships, reducing family conflict, and fostering connections both during and after incarceration. Review of the literature identified four primary categories of family-based interventions: (1) inmate visitation programs; (2) batterer intervention programs and other programs addressing domestic violence issues; (3) parenting education and training programs; and (4) family counseling programs.

What the Research Says about Family-Based Programs

Based on a systematic review, seventy-nine evaluations of family-based programs were identified, however, only six of these studies met criteria for relevance and methodological rigor. The two primary reasons that studies did not meet these criteria were that (1) the program did not serve a population returning from incarceration, or (2) the study did not measure any post-release outcomes. Several other studies simply did not meet requirements for methodological rigor.

Four of the six studies that qualified for inclusion were inmate visitation programs, which included both studies of programs specifically designed to encourage contact between inmates and their family members and those of more general prison policies allowing inmates to receive visitors. These included two studies of general in-prison visitation in Canada and Florida, a study of private family visiting in Canada through which inmates were afforded conjugal visits and permitted to spend up to 72 hours alone with visitors in a private area, and Community Mediation Maryland which facilitated mediation meetings between incarcerated individuals and their family members prior to release.

Each study found evidence of a beneficial impact of program participation on recidivism. However, each study suffers from a major limitation: it is possible that other factors, such as strength of family bonds or access to transportation, affected both visitation and recidivism. In other words, reduced recidivism may not be attributable to visitation per se, but rather to these other factors. Nonetheless, these studies lend support to the notion that maintaining family ties during a period of incarceration may improve post-release success.

One of the six studies included in the Clearinghouse was a Canadian batterer intervention program known as Relating Without Violence. Findings suggested that program participation significantly reduced recidivism. Interestingly, a total of 44 other studies of batterer intervention programs and other treatment programs for domestic violence offenders were identified but did not meet eligibility criteria. Most batterer intervention programs are used as a court-mandated alternative to incarceration; as such, these programs do not serve a population returning to society from a correctional institution. Hence, these studies were not included.

The final program included in this review was a jail substance abuse treatment program implemented in Delaware County, OH. The program employed a community reinforcement approach to help participants refocus their lives away from substance use. The model relied on concerned significant others who agreed to encourage participants to continue treatment and follow a drug-free lifestyle when the returned to the community. Findings suggested that program participants were 86% less likely to recidivate than those in the comparison group.

Future Areas of Research

Research on the effectiveness of family-based programs is very limited and much more work is needed to understand the impact of these programs on key outcomes of interest. The majority of programs identified in this topic area did not evaluate the impact of programs on individuals returning from incarceration and/or did not examine core outcomes of interest including recidivism, substance abuse, employment, mental health and/or housing. Most of those that were relevant did not meet criteria for methodological rigor. Future research should strive to employ rigorous designs to evaluate the impact of program participation on critical reentry outcomes.

Summary of Evaluations and Outcomes

Rigor Evaluation Recidivism Employment Substance Abuse
Basic Rigor Bales & Mears 2008 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Derkzen, Gobeil, & Gileno 2009 (1) (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Derkzen, Gobeil, & Gileno 2009 (2) (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Flowers, 2013; Flowers, 2014 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Miller, Miller, & Barnes, 2015 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Pascual-Leone, Bierman, Arnold, & Stasiak, 2011 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)