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Five Things to Know About Women and Reentry

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Date Published
April 9, 2024

Each year, nearly two million women[1] are released from prison or jail.[2] These women experience unique challenges during their reentry[3] — the period of transition from correctional confinement to the community[4] — but correctional programming to support successful reintegration has largely focused on men.[5] Despite evidence that findings from men’s reentry programs may not be generalizable to women,[6] there has not been a commensurate investment in research, development, implementation, or evaluation of programs that integrate gender-specific factors in their designs.

Here are five things we know about women and reentry based on available data and research.

1. One in 138 women was under correctional supervision — in prison, jail, or on community supervision — at yearend 2021, but little is known about their characteristics on a national scale. 

Although the number of females under correctional supervision fell 25% between 2011 and 2021, nearly one million women remained in prison, jail, or on probation or parole as of December 31, 2021, a rate of 720 per 100,000.[7] This included 85,100 women held in local jails — a 22% increase from 2020. While women make up nearly 18% of the correctional supervision population,[8] national-level data on their characteristics is scant, restricting the ability to discern sex by race, ethnicity, age group, offense type, or conviction status. Available national data indicate that Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/ Alaskan Native women experience higher rates of imprisonment than white women.[9] but the degree to which this over-representation is mirrored in community supervision populations remains unclear. One consistent finding for this population is that many women who have experienced incarceration are mothers. Past estimates indicate that 58% of women in prison[10] and 80% of women in jail[11] have minor children, with two children on average.[12]

2. Compared to men, women have distinct trajectories into the criminal justice system. 

Females follow unique pathways into the criminal justice system compared to males.[13] Researchers have documented differences in family histories of dysfunction, substance use, co-occurring disorders, and victimization, all of which are associated with criminal justice involvement.[14] Histories of sexual abuse and trauma are especially overrepresented in the female incarcerated population.[15] Most reentry programs available for women have been designed for men and do not address the distinct trajectories of how women become involved in the criminal justice system.[16]

3. Gender-responsive programming shows promising results for women reentering society.

Women reentering communities from incarceration can experience the associated hardships differently than men, as they are more likely to be victimized and economically disadvantaged, suffer from mental illness or co-occurring disorders, use drugs regularly, be a parent to an underage child, or face any combination of these challenges.[17] All of these factors likely impact the odds of reoffending.

Gender-responsive programming is based on an assessment of risks and needs that includes gender-specific factors and incorporates treatment targets, such as those focused on mental health, substance use, or familial relationships.[18] Gender-responsive interventions that include mental health components, treatment for trauma, childcare, and parenting classes are associated with reduced recidivism and increased treatment retention following release.[19] Female-specific programming that incorporates cognitive behavioral therapy, mutual or peer support, or all-female group sessions is recommended for women experiencing reentry.[20] Despite these findings, research evaluating gender-responsive programs is relatively limited. Researchers need to develop and evaluate more of these programs to better understand how to ensure successful reentry for women. See “Women’s Reentry Programs Rated Promising on CrimeSolutions” (below) for a summary of reentry programs designed for justice-involved females currently rated promising on CrimeSolutions.[21]

4. Programming that addresses substance use, mental health, or co-occurring disorders before, during, and after supervision can be especially helpful for women.

Because justice-involved women are more likely to experience substance use, mental health, and co-occurring disorders, treatment before and during reentry is especially beneficial.[22] Analyses of substance abuse treatment programs for women have found that those that are gender-responsive, use individualized case management, target co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders, or are transitional programs are most effective at reducing recidivism and substance use.[23] Research suggests that reentry programs can increase women’s access to post-release mental health or substance use disorder treatment services, ideally through implementation of a reentry plan developed prior to release.[24] These services also play an important role in substance use-related reentry outcomes for women, including return to treatment, continuity of care, and post-release abstinence from drugs and alcohol.[25]

5. Culturally responsive strategies for reentry programming may enhance success for justice-involved females.

Some preliminary studies suggest that culturally responsive programs — those that consider race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other identities — may be more effective than traditional programming in reducing recidivism and improving program engagement.[26] Accordingly, gender-responsive reentry programming may be improved by also using culturally responsive strategies that consider client characteristics and intersecting identities. However, more rigorous research is needed.

Women’s Reentry Programs Rated Promising on CrimeSolutions
Forever FreeThe first comprehensive, in-prison, residential substance use disorder treatment program designed for incarcerated women. In one quasi-experimental study, the intervention group reported fewer arrests during parole, less drug use, and more employment at follow-up than the comparison group.
Gender-Specific Drug Treatment CourtA drug court program that provides treatment services to women on probation to reduce their risk of reoffending. The program gives preference to women who have higher need and risk profiles, are mothers, and have substance use problems. In one quasi-experimental study, women in the treatment group were statistically significantly less likely to have a new conviction after two years when compared with a control group.
Moving OnA curriculum-based, gender-responsive intervention addressing incarcerated women’s different cognitive-behavioral needs. Based on one quasi-experimental study, the program significantly reduced recidivism (as measured by rearrests and reconvictions), but it did not significantly affect reincarcerations for a new offense or technical violation revocations.
“Seeking Safety” for Incarcerated WomenA cognitive-behavioral intervention for incarcerated women with co-occurring post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorders. In one quasi-experimental study, results suggest it significantly reduced PTSD and depression scores in program participants.

Date Published: April 9, 2024