Focus Area: Youth Reentry and Aftercare Programs

One of the most critical functions of the juvenile justice system is to ensure that youth placed out of home successfully reintegrate back into their communities when they are released. Youth in out of home placement are typically detached from their families, schools, and other supports and reconnecting with these systems presents a number of challenges, particularly for teens who are struggling with mental health, substance abuse, and/or other co-occurring disorders. Reentry programs are commonly referred to as “Aftercare” in the juvenile justice context. Research on the effectiveness of various program models is critical to improving services for youth and ensuring they get back on track toward successful adulthood.

Here we provide an overview of the research on the effects of comprehensive youth reentry and aftercare programs on recidivism, employment, and education outcomes. In other words, this review focuses on a subset of aftercare programs: those that provide a comprehensive set of services for youth transitioning back to the community from out of home placement. A systematic review of the literature identified six studies of five unique programs that met eligibility criteria for relevance and methodological rigor. Two evaluations were rated as high rigor while the remaining four were basic.

What the Research Says about Youth Aftercare Programs

Overall, the research base on comprehensive youth aftercare programs is limited. Few studies met methodological rigor for inclusion and all but one examined only recidivism outcomes. However, findings from the rigorous evaluations reviewed suggest that comprehensive aftercare programming that pairs case management with services and involves caregivers in the process can improve outcomes for youth.

Five of the six evaluations reviewed found some evidence of a beneficial impact on youth outcomes. Two evaluations of the Family Integrated Transitions (FIT) program and individual studies of Parenting With Love and Limits and the Philadelphia Intensive Aftercare program all found a modest, beneficial impact on youth recidivism. All three of these programs targeted youth either at high risk of recidivating or with serious emotional and behavioral problems, focused heavily on treatment, and matched youth with dedicated staff who maintained small caseloads in order to provide intensive case management. Interestingly, the Parenting With Love and Limits program was originally developed as a diversion program but the study summarized here evaluated a reentry model that was piloted in a single county in Indiana and found that program participation significantly reduced readjudication rates one year post-release. Both studies of the FIT program found that program participation reduced the likelihood of readjudication. One included a cost-benefit analysis and concluded that the FIT program was cost beneficial, saving $3.15 for every dollar invested. Notably, in each of these three studies, other recidivism measures (e.g. overall recidivism and/or rearrest) were typically lower in the treatment group relative to the comparison group but did not reach statistical significance.

An evaluation of the Avon Park Youth Academy (APYA) and STREET Smart aftercare in Florida found no effect of the programs on recidivism or employment outcomes but did find a strong beneficial impact on education. Residents in APYA were significantly more likely to earn a diploma in placement and to hold a diploma or GED equivalent two years post-release than youth who were placed in one of the 49 other facilities run by the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice. The APYA and STREET Smart programs provided remedial education and vocational and life skills training in the facility paired with case management, mentoring, and job placement services in the community post-release.

The Skillman Aftercare program implemented in Detroit, Michigan and Pittsburgh, PA was the only one studied that demonstrated no effect on youth outcomes. There were no differences between the treatment and comparison groups on either rearrest or readjudication measures. Notably, however, this study included a comparatively small sample size (fewer than 100 youth total in each site).

Future Areas of Research

Our review of the body of research on the effectiveness of comprehensive youth aftercare programs yielded only a handful of studies that met the criteria for methodological rigor. Given the dearth of rigorous studies in this topic area, further research is needed to understand the impact of aftercare programming on youth outcomes. Additionally, of the six studies that were reviewed, only one examined outcomes other than recidivism. Aftercare programs seldom aim simply to prevent recidivism. Thus, understanding the impact on other measures of positive youth development (e.g. education, employment, and mental health outcomes) is critically important.

Summary of Evaluations and Outcomes

Rigor Evaluation Recidivism Employment Substance Abuse
High Rigor Aos, 2004 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
High Rigor Early, Chapman, & Hand, 2013 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Greenwood, Deschenes, & Adams, 1993 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 2009 (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Sontheimer & Goodstein, 1993; Goodstein & Sontheimer, 1997 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Trupin et al. 2011 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)