This is the third part in a three-part series Recidiviz has written summarizing recent high-quality academic work about policies and programs that affect justice-involved individuals. The goal is to make research more accessible to practitioners, helping them make evidence-based decisions. As always, we welcome thoughts and feedback.
It is well established that people with criminal histories have trouble finding housing upon reentry. Researchers have shown that rental property owners discriminate against those with criminal histories: they are about half as likely to accept a housing application with a criminal history, even if all other aspects of the application are identical.
One solution employed by a majority of US states is transitional housing, commonly known as “halfway homes” or “reentry centers,” which offer people a place to stay as they transition between prison and parole. While 700,000 people are released from prison annually, state and federal transitional housing facilities only have capacity for roughly 60,000 people–at a cost of about $1 billion per year.
Given the large scale and cost of transitional housing, one might think researchers have extensively studied the effects of transitional housing on reentry success. But in the words of a recent review of reentry programs: “Unfortunately there is currently very little evidence on the effectiveness of [housing] interventions.”
A naive approach involves comparing outcomes for those who spend time in transitional housing to those who do not. However, this method suffers from selection bias: those who stay in transitional housing may be different in important ways from those who do not, which itself could drive differences in outcomes. Perhaps those who are not required to stay or opt-out are more likely to have a supportive family member they could live with or more means to afford stable housing.
A credible way to study the effects of transitional housing requires an experimental approach. Ideally, we’d have a large pool of people, randomly assign transitional housing to some of them (the treatment arm), and compare their outcomes with the rest of the pool (the control arm). As far as we know, such an experiment has not been conducted in over four decades.¹
The next best thing is a natural experiment–some setting in which an individual’s decision to stay in transitional housing is strongly influenced by a policy or something else out of the individual’s control. Thus, when otherwise similar people vary only in whether they stayed in transitional housing, we can assume that differences in their outcomes are caused by housing itself. Next, we review an article that exploits a natural experiment in Iowa.
In this paper, Logan Lee estimates the causal effect of transitional housing on recidivism. In Iowa, every incarcerated person is randomly assigned a case manager upon entering prison. These case managers influence whether the person is released from prison directly to parole or to a brief stay in residential housing. Since case managers vary in their tendency to recommend stays in residential housing, we can compare outcomes between people assigned to high-tendency case managers (treatment) and those assigned to low-tendency case managers (control).
First, Lee documents that case managers strongly influence whether someone will stay in residential housing or simply be released to parole as usual. While high-tendency case managers required half of their cases to live in residential housing, low-tendency case managers only send one in four.
So, what are the effects of residential housing on recidivism? Lee finds that being assigned to residential housing does not reduce reincarceration. This is both surprising and disappointing given that housing programs are 14 times more costly than parole and are intended to provide a stable place to live and reduce recidivism. In fact, Lee finds that assignment to residential housing actually increases violent crime by about 7 percentage points. Moreover, individuals assigned to residential housing are much more likely to be reincarcerated for technical violations. He posits that stricter rules and monitoring in halfway homes may provide greater opportunities to fail.
Instead of requiring stays in halfway homes, what if states provided housing vouchers or other forms of stable housing? To our knowledge, no experiment has tested these programs,² though one study of the “Housing First” program in Vancouver found that providing housing to people experiencing homelessness reduced future convictions.
Another author attempted to answer this question using a natural experiment. In this working paper, Timothy Young compares released individuals who returned to areas with high availability of affordable housing to those who returned to areas with fewer options. He finds small but significant reductions in recidivism when affordable housing is widely available, providing some confidence that greater housing stability would likely improve reentry success.
Justice-involved individuals often report that stable housing is critical for reintegration. The papers we review here make it clear that simply providing a place to live is not enough: the type of housing, supervision rules, and peer influence should all be taken into consideration. Research on the effects of providing free or subsidized housing (e.g., providing housing vouchers to the housing insecure) is limited and should be expanded. If programs that reduce crime and subsequent incarceration can be identified, the societal benefits will easily justify the additional costs.
¹ This study, published in 1977, is the only known experimental evaluation of a transitional housing program.
² Although researchers have studied multiple housing programs, none have experimentally tested programs that provide housing vouchers to people leaving prison.