Recidivism and Neighborhood Governance

By Michael Craw (Evergreen State College) and Tusty ten Bensel (University of Arkansas at Little Rock)

Prisoner re-entry and recidivism pose significant challenges for many of our most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Ex-offenders face such disadvantages as weakened family and social relationships, outdated skills, stigma in the labor market, and psychological trauma from prison experience. The social isolation and economic vulnerability that ex-offenders face spills over into their neighborhoods, reinforcing neighborhood poverty and weakening local social institutions. At the same time, neighborhood poverty and other forms of disadvantage create barriers to successful re-entry and make it more likely that an ex-prisoner will re-offend. These findings lead many researchers to conclude that cycles of incarceration and re-entry reinforce neighborhood disadvantage in many communities.

The purpose of our UAR article is to assess the role that neighborhood and homeowner associations play in ex-offender re-entry and recidivism. These two types of organization are among the most common ways neighborhood residents come together to address common problems and to make their neighborhoods better places to live.  But they are very different sorts of organization. Neighborhood associations typically result from the voluntary efforts of some residents in the neighborhood and draw on the trust and good will that residents have for each other in order to get things done. In contrast, real estate developers create homeowner associations (HOAs) as a means to maintain the common property of a neighborhood. HOAs more closely resemble governments: deeds for homes in the neighborhood require membership in the HOA, including payment of dues and compliance with the HOA’s rules, and the HOA can enforce its rules through the civil legal system.

Despite these differences, both neighborhood and homeowner associations typically seek to reduce crime and increase order in their neighborhoods. They may do this in somewhat different ways.  HOAs often use security patrols or barriers such as walls and gates to enhance neighborhood safety. Neighborhood associations may organize neighborhood watches or neighborhood clean-up days, and may monitor neighborhood conditions and report problems (such as pothole, broken street lights, and abandoned homes) to appropriate city departments. They may also encourage people to get to know each other better, which indirectly improves safety by helping residents to monitor strangers and by making it easier for residents to stop minor social disorder (fights between young teens) from becoming more serious. An emerging body of work documents the successes of both forms of organization. For example, we found in another recent study that both neighborhood and homeowner associations in Little Rock measurably enhance property values compared to unorganized neighborhoods.

It makes sense, then, to speculate that neighborhood and homeowner associations might play important roles in helping ex-offenders to re-integrate into the community. Both sorts of organizations seek to promote social relationships in the community that may reduce the social isolation of an ex-offender. Both also seek to increase physical and social order in ways that discourage criminal behavior and that may therefore reduce opportunities to re-offend. Or these organizations might in some cases even be in a position to provide linkages to resources outside the neighborhood that assist ex-offenders. With this in mind, we set out to examine the outcomes for 5113 prisoners who the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) released between 2004 and 2014 and who settled in Little Rock. ADC provided us with data on whether each ex-offender at returned to prison before February 2016, and if so when. We also received the address at which each ex-offender was located and for how long s/he lived at that address. This made it possible to identify the neighborhood in which s/he lived. Data from the City of Little Rock’s Department of Housing and Neighborhood Programs made it possible to determine if each ex-offender lived in a neighborhood with a neighborhood association, homeowner association, or neither. Because the ADC gave us data not only on whether an ex-offender returned to prison, but how long it took for them to return to prison, we were able to analyze recidivism in terms of hazard rate — the likelihood at any given point in time that an ex-offender would re-offend.  This frees us from concern that some ex-offenders in our study were under study for a much longer period of time than others.

At first glance, our results seemed to support our hypothesis that neighborhood and homeowner associations help ex-offenders to re-integrate and to reduce recidivism. After subtracting out the effects of neighborhood income and racial composition and the effects of each individual’s own criminal record and personal circumstances, we found that ex-offenders who located to neighborhood and homeowner associations were at less hazard for committing an offense that would return them to prison.

But this result raised a new question for us: are ex-offenders who are innately less likely to re-offend more likely to settle in a neighborhood with a neighborhood or homeowner association? It could be the case the ex-offenders who are more pro-criminal avoid more orderly neighborhoods. Another possibility is that neighborhood and homeowner associations limit housing options that are accessible to ex-offenders. Other research demonstrates that Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) action is often successful in restricting group homes, subsidized housing, or multi-family housing developments that are more affordable to ex-offenders. When we re-analyzed our data in light of this, we found evidence that ex-offenders do sort across neighborhoods according to their propensity for re-offending. It is unclear if this is the result of the choices ex-offenders make or if it is because of the effects neighborhood and homeowner associations have on housing options in their neighborhoods. Either possibility, though, suggests a need to more closely examine the effects of neighborhood organizations on crime and order in general, and on offender reintegration in particular.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Michael Craw, Ph.D. is Director of the Master of Public Administration Program at Evergreen State College . His research focuses on urban equality, local public finance, and community development. His work has appeared in UAR and the American Journal of Political Science.

Tusty ten Bensel, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Criminal Justice Department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Her research interests include neighborhood and re-entry, international and domestic sexual violence, and victimization. Tusty has published numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals such as Criminology, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Criminal Justice Policy Review, International Criminal Justice Review, and International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology

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