Within three years of their release, about two-thirds of ex-prisoners in the U.S. are arrested again. One of the most significant factors in recidivism, says a new National Academy of Sciences study reported by The Atlantic, is whether the released prisoners live in the same neighborhood as other parolees. Author David Kirk, sociology professor at the University of Oxford, says, “Put simply, the alarming rates of recidivism in the United States are partly a consequence of the fact that many individuals being released from prison ultimately reside in the same neighborhoods as other former felons.” About 650,000 prisoners are released each year. A significant share of the released tend to cluster in a a few very disadvantaged neighborhoods. It's hard to test what would happen if these reentry patterns were different, but living conditions in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina gave Kirk that chance.
The disaster destroyed a lot of property and geographically redistributed the former-prisoner population. Instead of concentrating in the same places as they had before Katrina, ex-prisoners released after the storm spread out across new neighborhoods. Kirk compared the re-incarceration rates in neighborhoods that had seen a change in parolee concentration to ones that hadn't and found that “the greater the concentration of ex-prisoners in a neighborhood, the greater the rate of subsequent recidivism. I find that concentrating former prisoners in the same neighborhoods leads to significantly higher recidivism rates than if ex-prisoners were more dispersed across neighborhoods.” He concluded that, “Although parole and public housing policies and practices were designed, in principle, to enhance public safety, they may in fact be undermining it.”