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The Effects of Neighborhood Context and Residential Mobility on Criminal Persistence and Desistance

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes the relevance of the neighborhood context in the explanation of persistence in and desistance from criminal offending, with a particular focus on the behavior of former prisoners. It first presents facts about the geographic distribution of returning prisoners. Next, the chapter draws upon extant research to examine in what ways the conditions of residential neighborhoods influence persistence and desistance among formerly incarcerated individuals. Similarly, this chapter draws upon theoretical perspectives and corresponding empirical evidence to examine how residential mobility might exert an impact on persistence and desistance. The distinction between these two subjects is that the former focuses on neighborhood effects whereas the latter focuses on individual-level mobility effects. Lastly, the chapter focuses on criminal justice policy and practice, including a discussion of the implications of the lessons learned from research on neighborhood effects and residential mobility for the re-entry and re-integration of formerly incarcerated individuals.

Keywords: neighborhood context, residential mobility, returning prisoners, formerly incarcerated individuals, neighborhood effects, mobility effects, criminal justice practice, criminal justice policy, re-integration, criminal offending

One in every 100 adults in the United States is in prison or jail at this very moment, with approximately 1.6 million individuals serving time in state and federal prisons and another 745,000 in local jails (Pew Center on the States 2008; Carson and Golinelli 2013; Minton 2013). Most of these individuals are not “lifers” and will eventually be released from incarceration. Although the War on Drugs and the “tough-on-crime” sentencing policies of the 1980s and 1990s facilitated the mass removal of criminals from many U.S. metropolitan neighborhoods, the most recent decade has been characterized by a growing number of individuals returning to these very same neighborhoods following their exit from prison. As shown in Figure 25.1, in 1977, roughly 150,000 individuals were released from U.S. prisons. By 1987, releases had increased to more than 300,000. By 2007, they surpassed 720,000, representing a nearly 400 percent increase in three decades (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2000; West and Sabol 2008). In total there are roughly 5 million formerly incarcerated individuals residing in U.S. neighborhoods, and 15 million former felons (Bonczar 2003; Shannon et al. 2017).

Research suggests that up to one-half of individuals released from prison have been in prison on at least one other occasion, and that more than two-thirds of returning prisoners are rearrested within three years of prison release and almost one-half are reincarcerated (Langan and Levin 2002; Durose, Cooper, and Snyder 2014). In fact, recidivism rates have remained essentially unchanged over the past decade, despite an increasing societal recognition of the failures of mass incarceration and the collateral consequences of criminal stigmas. (p. 516)

The Effects of Neighborhood Context and Residential Mobility on Criminal Persistence and DesistanceClick to view larger

Figure 25.1 U.S. Prison Releases, 1977−2015

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Prisoner Statistics

It is important to note that stable recidivism rates are not necessarily the result of the futility of rehabilitation, as Robert Martinson (1974) prematurely concluded decades ago. Critics of Martinson’s report subsequently concluded that the implementations of many of the programs reviewed by Martinson were so poor that it was unrealistic to expect a significant reduction in recidivism (Cullen and Gendreau 2000; MacKenzie 2002). Moreover, many of the reviewed studies suffered from weak research designs, thus prohibiting sound conclusions. Whereas rehabilitation efforts have far more promise than Martinson concluded, many programs and services for ex-prisoners are limited to addressing individual determinants of recidivism (e.g., education levels, drug addiction, cognitive thinking) and generally neglect the importance of social context for promoting desistance from crime. Nonetheless, a convincing and growing body of knowledge in criminology reveals just how important social context is to criminal desistance. Hence, there is an unfortunate disconnect between criminological theory on social correlates of desistance and programs to reduce recidivism.

With the preceding discussion in mind, this chapter seeks to describe the relevance of neighborhood context in the explanation of persistence in and desistance from criminal offending, with a particular focus on the behavior of former prisoners. Section I of the chapter presents facts about the geographic distribution of returning prisoners. Section II draws upon extant research to examine in what ways the conditions of residential neighborhoods influence persistence and desistance among formerly incarcerated individuals. Similarly, Section III draws upon theoretical (p. 517) perspectives and corresponding empirical evidence to examine how residential mobility might exert an impact on persistence and desistance. The distinction between these two sections is that the former focuses on neighborhood effects whereas the latter focuses on individual-level mobility effects. Section IV concludes with a focus on criminal justice policy and practice, including a discussion of the implications of the lessons learned from research on neighborhood effects and residential mobility for the re-entry and re-integration of formerly incarcerated individuals. This chapter focuses on research largely from the United States, in part because many of the recent studies of the relationship between neighborhood conditions and persistence and desistance draw upon data from the United States. However, I would suggest that many of the conclusions of the chapter generalize to countries and their neighborhood environments outside of the United States.

I. The Geography of Prisoner Re-entry

Understanding the neighborhood context of persistence and desistance requires appreciation of the facts surrounding the geography of prisoner re-entry. Despite the sheer magnitude of returning prisoners in the United States, most neighborhoods are untouched by prisoner re-entry. The geographic distribution of prisoner re-entry is highly concentrated in a relatively small number of neighborhoods within metropolitan areas. For instance, research reveals that more than one-half of prisoners released from Illinois prisons in 2001 returned to the city of Chicago; among these, one-third were concentrated in just 6 of 77 community areas (La Vigne et al. 2003). These six communities are among the most economically and socially disadvantaged in the city.

Interestingly, while metropolitan areas, particularly inner cities, continue to be the modal destination for returning prisoners, evidence reveals considerable geographic shifts in the urbanization and suburbanization of returning prisoners over the past two decades. For instance, in an analysis of the geography of prisoner re-entry in Illinois, Kirk (2016) found that the percentage of Illinois prison releases returning to the City of Chicago declined incrementally between 1996 and 2005 (from 52 percent to 50 percent) and then declined dramatically between 2005 and 2009 before leveling off at roughly 39 percent in 2013. Increasingly over time, former prisoners in Illinois are residing in suburban and exurban areas.1 That being said, despite recent shifts in the geography of prisoner re-entry, evidence suggests that returning prisoners are still highly concentrated into relatively few neighborhoods. That is, for individuals returning from prison to the City of Chicago, they are clustered into a select few neighborhoods on the west and south side of the city. Similarly, those former prisoners residing in suburban areas are located in relatively few suburban neighborhoods. The fact that returning prisoners tend to be geographically clustered into resource-deprived neighborhoods has important implications for the persistence of criminal behavior.

(p. 518) II. The Role of Neighborhood Context in Explanations of Persistence and Desistance

Several different theoretical perspectives can be used to explain the effect of neighborhood conditions on criminal persistence and desistance. The discussion to follow focuses on the following mechanisms: criminal opportunity, social disorganization and informal social control, social and cultural isolation, and legal cynicism.2

A. Criminal Opportunities

One perspective explaining the effect of neighborhood conditions on persistence and desistance comes from routine activity theory (Cohen and Felson 1979). As Cohen and Felson (1979) argue, crime is the result of the convergence of motivated offenders and suitable targets in the absence of capable guardians. The implication is that to truly understand criminal behavior, we must model routine activities of offenders, victims, and guardians. Regarding offenders, Osgood and colleagues (1996) argue that motivation for crime is situational rather than fixed in the individual. Many criminal offenders are not wholly committed to crime, and therefore persistence is a function of the situational contingencies that provide opportunities for crime and weaken social controls (Farrall et al. 2014). For instance, in their qualitative longitudinal study of a random sample of 199 probationers in the United Kingdom, Farrall and colleagues (2014) find that sample members who persisted in crime spent more time in situations conducive to crime and had far fewer structured routines in their lives (i.e., with respect to family time and work).

To understand the availability of criminal opportunities, it is pertinent to examine how the structure of neighborhoods influence the amount of activity that takes place in a space and what influences the convergence of offenders and victims in space (Sampson, Morenoff, and Gannon-Rowley 2002). From this perspective, neighborhood characteristics such as land use, the location of schools and public transportation stops, population density, and the prevalence of nighttime visitors are consequential to the convergence of offenders and targets in the absence of guardians. For instance, residence in proximity to bars and taverns, which have been shown to be magnets for crime (Roncek and Maier 1991), could contribute to the persistence of crime.

One factor influencing the availability of criminal opportunities is the presence of criminal peers. I noted in the discussion of the geography of prisoner re-entry that former prisoners and individuals with previous contact with the criminal justice system tend to cluster in geographic space. Accordingly, residence in a neighborhood housing many former prisoners may facilitate an individual’s persistence in criminal activity through expansion of criminal opportunities. As Osgood and colleagues (1996, p. 639) (p. 519) suggest, “Being with peers can increase the situational potential for deviance by making deviance easier and rewarding. . . . Friends are a common source of illicit drugs; being accompanied by friends reduces the danger in challenging a rival to a fight; and having a partner to serve as look-out can enhance the chances of success at theft.” Hence, the greater the prevalence of potential partners in crime in a neighborhood, the greater the exposure to criminal opportunities.

B. Social Disorganization

Social disorganization theory provides another perspective on the neighborhood context of persistence and desistance. Shaw and McKay (1942) propose that variations in crime and delinquency across neighborhoods are a function of the extent of social disorganization across these areas. Social disorganization refers to the breakdown in the social institutions of a neighborhood community (e.g., family, schools, churches, political groups), rendering them ineffective at maintaining social order and control. The implication is that to prevent or reduce crime (and relatedly, recidivism), we need to alter conditions of neighborhoods and not simply focus on the rehabilitation of individuals within those neighborhoods (Shaw and McKay 1942).

The most widely tested aspect of Shaw and McKay’s thesis stems from their argument that low socioeconomic status (SES), ethnic heterogeneity, and residential mobility all lead to disruption of local community social organization, which ultimately accounts for neighborhood variation in rates of crime and delinquency. High recidivism rates are a predictable outcome given that ex-prisoners and other former offenders often reside in disorganized neighborhoods characterized by these types of factors.

Central to Shaw and McKay’s (1942) theoretical claims about the relation between disorganization and crime is their emphasis on “differential systems of values.” Shaw and McKay do note that in both high- and low-SES areas the dominant value system is conventional, but in low-SES areas there is a competing system of values with which residents must contend. This is not to say that the more affluent and less-crime-ridden areas do not have unconventional values and behavior; rather, there is greater uniformity and consensus on values in those areas, which insulates individuals from the criminal element. In contrast, in high-crime areas, individuals are routinely brought into contact with unconventional attitudes and behaviors that conflict with the dominant (conventional) value systems. These unconventional attitudes still emphasize the achievement of status and economic gain, but different means to achieve these ends are formulated and transmitted. In other words, these unconventional values support criminal and delinquent behavior. By residing in disorganized neighborhoods marked by unconventional values, past offenders may be discouraged or dissuaded from following the necessary path to successful re-integration into society and therefore persist with their criminal activities.

More recent formulations of the social disorganization thesis have come to define social disorganization as the inability of a community structure to realize the common (p. 520) values of its residents and maintain effective social controls (Kornhauser 1978; Bursik 1988; Sampson and Groves 1989). With an emphasis on the importance of relational networks to facilitate social control, current formulations of the social disorganization thesis have utilized the systemic model, which identifies the social organization of communities by focusing on the local community networks (Kasarda and Janowitz 1974). Related to social control, the systemic model posits that the structure and characteristics of these networks determines the capacity with which a neighborhood can engage in control.

Whereas social network ties facilitate the creation and maintenance of social capital and informal social control, Sampson (2001) argues that social networks and the strength of social ties alone cannot explain social control given that strong ties are not always conducive to action. Evidence of the limits of social ties can be seen in the findings of Whyte (1993 [1943]) and more recently in research by Warner and Rountree (1997). Accordingly, Morenoff and colleagues (2001; see also Sampson, Morenoff, and Earls 1999) argue that researchers must move beyond a reliance on social capital and density of ties when examining the determinants of crime. They describe social capital as a “resource potential,” but one that must be activated and utilized. To move beyond social capital and strong ties and associations, these authors use the “task-specific” construct of collective efficacy to explain neighborhood variations in violent crime (Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls 1997; Morenoff, Sampson, and Raudenbush 2001). Collective efficacy is defined as the process of activating or converting social ties among neighborhood residents in order to achieve collective goals, such as public order or the control of crime (Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls 1997).

Clear and colleagues’ (Rose and Clear 1998; Clear et al. 2003; Clear 2007) coercive mobility thesis is a variant of the social disorganization model that similarly emphasizes the role of social networks in the control of crime. In the first articulation of the coercive mobility thesis, Rose and Clear (1998) examine the implications of incarceration on neighborhood social networks and put forth the argument that high neighborhood incarceration rates disrupt familial and neighborhood social networks, thus undermining efforts to informally control neighborhood crime. In other words, extensive use of formal social controls through the incarceration of neighborhood residents may ultimately undermine a neighborhood’s capacity for informal social control by fragmenting the social networks upon which informal control depends. Neighborhoods that disproportionately send individuals to prison are also typically the neighborhoods that receive released prisoners, thereby creating a process known as “churning” that is disruptive to the stability of neighborhoods (Clear 2007). Thus, released prisoners often return to neighborhoods lacking in informal social controls, making crime and recidivism more likely.

C. Social and Cultural Isolation

A third perspective on the neighborhood context of persistence and desistance can be garnered from the seminal work of William Julius Wilson. In The Truly Disadvantaged, (p. 521) Wilson (1987) argues that the socioeconomically disadvantaged in the United States circa the 1980s were qualitatively different than the urban poor of prior periods, or, more specifically, their social contexts were different. Prior to the 1960s, he notes, “lower-class, working-class, and middle-class black families all lived more or less in the same communities (albeit in different neighborhoods), sent their children to the same schools, availed themselves of the same recreational facilities, and shopped at the same stores” (Wilson 1987, p. 7). In contrast, Wilson suggests that the contemporary poor are drastically more likely to live in social isolation from mainstream society. This social isolation, he argues, creates a fundamentally different urban milieu than in eras when the poor lived among other socioeconomic classes. To Wilson, the “truly disadvantaged” refers to more than just poverty; it refers to the geographic isolation of the underclass—that is, the unskilled, the undereducated, the unemployed, the poor, and the criminal—from working- and middle-class segments of society.

Why is the social isolation Wilson described so consequential? He (Wilson 1987, p. 56) argues:

the exodus of middle- and working-class families from many ghetto neighborhoods removes an important ‘social buffer’ that could deflect the full impact of the kind of prolonged and increasing joblessness that plagued inner-city neighborhoods in the 1970s and early 1980s . . . this argument is based on the assumption that even if the truly disadvantaged segments of an inner-city area experience a significant increase in long-term spells of joblessness, the basic institutions in that area (churches, schools, stores, recreational facilities, etc.) would remain viable if much of the base of their support comes from the more economically stable and secure families.

Yet when the middle-class base of support vacated the inner city, mainstream institutions of informal social control weakened. Wilson (1987) argues that the exodus of the middle class and the resulting social isolation of the disadvantaged resulted in a cultural isolation: neighborhood residents are isolated from mainstream cultural norms, particularly those associated with steady work.

As Harding (2010) points out, Wilson’s theory of cultural isolation diverges from Shaw and McKay’s theory of a “differential system of values” even though each one is a variant of a control model. For Shaw and McKay, unconventional values gain traction in a neighborhood because the weakened institutions of social control (e.g., churches, schools, and families) cannot fend them off; yet Shaw and McKay contend that the conventional value system is still dominant.3 Thus, disorganized neighborhoods are said to be characterized by a differential system of values, or cultural heterogeneity, rather than cultural isolation of just unconventional norms and values. As Harding (2010) explicates, because of neighborhood cultural heterogeneity, an individual’s commitment to any particular cultural model is weak—e.g., he or she is less likely to follow his or her stated goals or to act in accordance with one particular cultural frame. In sum, the cultural mechanism of the disorganization and isolation models diverge—i.e., cultural isolation away from mainstream values versus cultural heterogeneity of mainstream and unconventional values in the same neighborhood; yet they are united by the notion that (p. 522) structural conditions breed cultural adaptations that undermine the control of crime. This leads to a focus on one particular cultural adaptation linking neighborhood context and persistence in crime: legal cynicism.

D. Legal Cynicism

Legal cynicism is a cultural orientation in which the law and the police are viewed as illegitimate, unresponsive, and ill-equipped to ensure public safety (Kirk and Papachristos 2011). In contrast to an attribute solely of individuals, Kirk and Papachristos (2011, p. 1201) suggest that legal cynicism can become part of the social fabric of neighborhoods: “Cynicism becomes cultural through social interaction. In this sense, individuals’ own experiential-based perception of the law becomes solidified through a collective process whereby residents develop a shared meaning of the behavior of the law.” Prior research on legal cynicism has demonstrated that cynical views of the law in a neighborhood are generally the product of the structural conditions of the neighborhood, particularly socioeconomic disadvantage, and variation in criminal justice practices, especially the legitimacy of the police (Sampson and Bartusch 1998; Kirk and Papachristos 2011; Kirk et al. 2012). Building on the work of Kapsis (1978), Sampson and Bartusch (1998) argue that the economic and political marginalization of neighborhoods, combined with racial segregation, breeds cynicism of the law in those neighborhoods.

Cynicism of the law helps answer the question of why the concentration of offenders and former offenders in geographic space may lead to the persistence of criminal behavior. The funneling of massive numbers of formerly incarcerated individuals back to select neighborhoods likely reproduces a cultural ethos in those areas characterized by a severe cynicism of the law (Kirk and Papachristos 2011, 2015; Kirk 2016).

One basis for this assertion can be found in recent work by Weaver and Lerman (2010). Their findings reveal that direct experiences with incarceration or police harassment fundamentally influence an individual’s distrust of the law. They find that involvement with the criminal justice system significantly depresses a person’s trust in government, with trust becoming increasingly damaged as criminal sanctions become more severe (see also Muller and Schrage 2014). Given that ex-prisoners are relatively more distrustful of the criminal justice system, concentrated prisoner re-entry may have a devastating effect on perceptions of the law and authority among a community of residents. Concentrating ex-prisoners in the same neighborhood saturates residents’ social networks with criminals and potentially leads to the contagious spread of legal cynicism and distrust of the police.

Evidence of this contagion process can be seen in recent work by Papachristos, Meares, and Fagan (2012). These authors point out that among individuals with a history of criminal behavior there is great variation in the frequency of criminal offending and that most criminals actually spend the majority of their time complying with the law. The authors thus wonder why criminals do, in fact, obey the law most of the time, (p. 523) and they look to the import of criminal social networks for an answer. Papachristos and colleagues (2012) find that members of street gangs—particularly, those whose social networks are inundated with criminal associates—are more likely to view the law and the police as illegitimate and therefore are more likely to engage in criminal behavior. Conversely, criminals who do not generally associate with other criminals are far more likely to have positive views of the criminal justice system than those who associate primarily with other criminals. As a consequence, criminals embedded in networks with noncriminals engage less often in criminal activity than those embedded in social networks with many other criminals. In relation to concentrated prisoner re-entry, if association with non-criminals is vital for desisting from crime, then residing in a neighborhood with limited access to prosocial peers would appear to thwart turning points in the life course of crime even if an individual is motivated to change. Accordingly, it is plausible to assume that ex-prisoners who reside in a neighborhood with many other former prisoners are more likely to recidivate than ex-prisoners who are not routinely exposed to other criminals. Recent research by Kirk (2015) provides support for this hypothesis. He finds that ex-prisoners are more likely to be re-incarcerated if they reside in proximity to many other former prisoners (see also Mennis and Harris 2011; Stahler et al. 2013; Chamberlain and Wallace 2016).

E. Person–Context Interactions

Largely absent from the discussion thus far is consideration of how individual characteristics bear upon persistence and desistance. While it is out of the scope of this chapter to review all of the various individual-level risk and protective factors predictive of persistence and desistance, it is relevant to discuss the interaction between person and contextual characteristics. As Wikström and Loeber (2000, p. 1110) suggest, “Individuals’ perceptions of alternatives and process of decision making will be seen as a result of the interaction of the individual’s set of characteristics (dispositions and social situation) and the characteristics of the community context (structural characteristics and their related social processes) in which he or she lives and acts.” Accordingly, in his explication of situational action theory, Wikström (2006, p. 61) argues, “people are moved to action (including acts of crime) by how they see their action alternatives and make their choices when confronted with the particularities of a setting” (emphasis in original).

Strands of this argument can be found in the preceding discussions of criminal opportunity and legal cynicism. Many criminal offenders are weakly motivated to commit crime. When they do engage in criminal conduct, it is often because a good opportunity to do so came along. For instance, in their qualitative study of persisting and desisting offenders, Farrall and colleagues (2014) recount the story of a former probationer named Danny. Danny was working in legitimate employment and was relatively content with his lifestyle. However, Danny willingly noted that should an illegal opportunity for “big money” come along, he’d take it. He was not firmly committed to criminal behavior, nor was he staunchly opposed to it. Danny’s persistence in crime very much depended upon (p. 524) the presentation of criminal opportunities. An individual with a different cognitive orientation and firm commitment to desistance could perhaps more readily withstand the temptation of a “big money” opportunity.

In their conception of legal cynicism, Kirk and Papachristos (2011) similarly conceive of behavior as the product of individual choices influenced by the characteristics of the social environment. In discussing the consequences of legal cynicism, they suggest, “the consequence is constraint—that is, cynicism constrains choices for resolving grievances and protecting oneself because individuals are more likely to presume that the law is unavailable or unresponsive to their needs. In the face of such constraints, individuals may choose to engage in their own brand of social control because they cannot rely upon the law to assist them” (Kirk and Papachristos 2011, pp. 1202–1203). When faced with a threatening situation, individuals may choose to avoid the situation or otherwise run from the situation, seek protection from older neighborhood peers, call the police for protection, or resort to violence to resolve a conflict. Individuals with negative perceptions of the criminal justice system may view reliance on the police as an ineffective strategy for handling the threatening situation, thus making it more likely that they choose a different strategy. Ultimately an individual’s behavior will depend upon the interaction of situational opportunities and individual characteristics.

F. Empirical Tests of the Link Between Neighborhood Context and Persistence/Desistance

Whereas there are several theoretical perspectives offering testable hypotheses related to the effect of neighborhood context on persistence and desistance, there is a relative dearth of research undertaking such tests, particularly related to the behavior of returning prisoners. Perhaps one reason is that methodological advances in GIS and spatial modeling have just recently opened the research avenues for exploring the question of the spatial distribution of prisoner re-entry. Even with such methodological advances, however, empirical studies are still dependent upon the availability of spatial and geographic data of crime, prisoner re-entry, and neighborhood characteristics. Thus, researchers have often been constrained by a lack of data. With that said, a few noteworthy studies have applied the arguments of the aforementioned neighborhood perspectives to understand the correlates of recidivism.

As one fruitful example, through a series of both theoretical and empirical publications, Rose, Clear, and a number of colleagues have examined the effects of high rates of incarceration in a given neighborhood on social disorganization and social control (see, e.g., Rose and Clear 1998; Clear, Rose, and Ryder 2001; Clear et al. 2003). As noted, Rose and Clear (1998) argue that high neighborhood incarceration rates disrupt familial and neighborhood social networks, thus undermining efforts to informally control neighborhood crime. In one empirical test, Clear and colleagues (2003) assess the repercussions of high rates of prisoner re-entry to Tallahassee neighborhoods on (p. 525) subsequent crime rates. They find a positive effect of neighborhood rates of prisoner re-entry on neighborhood crime rates in the following year, even after controlling for neighborhood characteristics like poverty, residential mobility, racial heterogeneity, and prior crime rate. Similarly, a study of census tracts in Seattle finds that the rates of prisoner re-entry in neighborhoods are positively associated with subsequent violent crime rates and that the relative percentage of former prisoners in a neighborhood negatively influences collective efficacy by increasing housing and employment instability in the neighborhood (Drakulich et al. 2012).

While the aforementioned research examines the effect of neighborhood context (measured through the concentration of returning prisoners) on an aggregate indicator of crime, Kubrin and Stewart (2006) examine the effect of neighborhood context on an individual’s likelihood of recidivism. In a study of recidivism in Multnomah County, Oregon, the authors find that offenders under community supervision who resided in disadvantaged neighborhoods following criminal sanctioning were significantly more likely to recidivate than those offenders who resided in more affluent neighborhoods. Offenders living in the least disadvantaged neighborhoods still had a 0.42 probability of recidivating, but those living in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods had a 0.60 probability (where recidivism is defined as a rearrest within twelve months following admission to community supervision). These results hold even after controlling for individual-level factors such as gender, age, race, ethnicity, and criminal history as well as sanctioning information.

In more recent research, Mears and colleagues (2008) find a positive association between county-level resource deprivation and reconviction from violent offending among male offenders released from Florida prisons. Hipp, Petersilia, and Turner (2010) find that multiple dimensions of neighborhood context predict reincarceration among a sample of California parolees, including concentrated disadvantage and the number of social service providers within two miles of parolees.

III. Residential Mobility, Persistence, and Desistance

As noted in the introductory section, estimates suggest that two-thirds of returning prisoners will be rearrested within three years, and roughly one-half will be back in prison (Durose, Cooper, and Snyder 2014). A likely contributor to high levels of recidivism is the fact that many released prisoners return home to the same environment with the same criminal opportunities and criminal peers that proved so detrimental to their behavior prior to incarceration. Recent estimates from Michigan suggest that the first post-prison place of residence for roughly one-third of newly released prisoners is within one-half mile of their pre-prison place of residence, and that a full 60 percent reside within five miles of their pre-prison place of residence (Harding, Morenoff, and (p. 526) Herbert 2013). Hence, a sizable percentage of newly released prisoners reside in relatively close proximity to their pre-prison place of residence.

John Laub and Robert Sampson’s (2003; see also Sampson and Laub 1993) life-course theory of desistance from crime provides a theoretical basis for understanding why separating from old neighborhoods through residential mobility could promote desistance and, conversely, why returning to home neighborhoods is predictive of the persistence in criminal offending. Among the notable findings from their multi-decade project are that offenders desist from crime in response to structurally induced turning points, such as work and marriage. Turning points serve as catalysts for sustained behavioral change by providing opportunities for individuals to separate from the settings, situations, and criminal peers that facilitated their prior criminal behavior.

Sampson and Laub’s (2005) life-course theory of criminal desistance highlights several commonalities among turning points that foster desistance from crime. They (2005, pp. 17–18) note:

What appears to be important about institutional or structural turning points is that they all involve, to varying degrees, (1) new situations that “knife off” the past from the present, (2) new situations that provide both supervision and monitoring as well as new opportunities of social support and growth, (3) new situations that change and structure routine activities, and (4) new situations that provide the opportunity for identity transformation.

At a theoretical level, residential relocation would seem to fit these four commonalities. In particular, residential moves may be turning points in the life course of crime, but the moves must include enough physical and social separation from previous neighborhood environments to allow an individual to “knife off” from his or her criminal past and prior criminal associates (Sampson 2008; Kirk 2009; Sharkey and Sampson 2010; Kirk 2012, 2020). In other words, the mere act of moving may be insufficient for desistance; rather, the degree of move is consequential. The more separation an individual has from his or her criminal past—both geographically and socially—the better. Thus, moving next door may have little effect on behavioral change, but moving to an entirely different city may allow an individual to truly separate from the past and therefore lead to long-term behavioral change.

Recent quantitative research supports this assertion. Kirk (2009, 2012, 2020) used the neighborhood destruction in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina as a natural experiment to investigate the effects of residential change on recidivism. He found substantial reductions in rates of re-incarceration among ex-offenders who moved away from their former parishes. His most conservative estimates (Kirk 2012) reveal that ex-prisoners who moved were 14 percentage points less likely to be reincarcerated within three years of prison release. In another study, Sharkey and Sampson (2010) found that among Chicago adolescents who moved to a different neighborhood within the city, their likelihood of violent offending increased. However, moving outside of Chicago reduced violent behavior.4

(p. 527) With respect to qualitative research, in their study of the life course of crime through age 70, Laub and Sampson (2003) find through qualitative interviews that residential change is often a fundamental turning point that leads to desistance from crime. Similarly, Farrall and colleagues (2014) find, particularly among drug users, that desistance was often achieved by moving far away from the people and situations conducive to drug use. These quantitative and qualitative studies suggest that residential change may lead to shifts in prior behavioral patterns, especially if the new residence is a considerable distance from the old neighborhood.

The Moving to Opportunity (MTO) housing mobility demonstration offers important insights about the consequences of residential relocation and the importance of residential moves that provide a true separation between origin and destination locations. MTO is a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was initiated in 1994 in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York (Katz, Kling, and Liebman 2001; Kling, Liebman, and Katz 2007). It has been described as the “most ambitious randomized social experiment ever conducted by HUD,” with over 4,600 low-income families with children participating (Sanbonmatsu et al. 2011, foreword). The question driving the MTO studies is whether an individual would behave differently, in terms of crime and other individual outcomes, if he or she lived in a non-poor neighborhood instead of a poor neighborhood. MTO families were randomly assigned to one of three groups: (1) an experimental group, which received a housing voucher and relocation assistance to move to homes only in areas with less than 10 percent poverty; (2) a Section 8 comparison group, which received a housing voucher that could be used in any neighborhood; and (3) a control group, which received no housing assistance (but were free to move if they wished). Researchers compared the three groups on a variety of outcomes, including crime, earnings, and health.

For many tested outcomes in the MTO demonstration, the residential moves were inconsequential, or in some cases detrimental. Mid- and long-term impact evaluations from MTO revealed that male youth in the experimental group showed a greater likelihood of engaging in problem behavior than control group youth (Kling, Ludwig, and Katz, 2005; Kling, Liebman, and Katz 2007). Thus, the results would suggest that there are limits to the potential benefits of relocation, particularly for male youth. Yet, as findings from Kirk’s (2009, 2012, 2020) work on New Orleans and Sharkey and Sampson’s (2010) research on Chicago allude, it may be the case that the residential moves in the MTO program were not, on average, substantial enough to produce a turning point in behavioral trajectories.

As noted, turning points can serve as catalysts for behavioral change by providing individuals a fresh start or a new situation to change their behavior. Importantly, Sampson (2008) points out through his analysis of families from the Chicago MTO site that a vast majority of MTO experimental families in Chicago moved a relatively short distance from their origin neighborhoods, with most of the families moving from one South Side neighborhood to a nearby neighborhood. Thus, it is questionable whether moving really severed the peer social networks of those youth. If a family moved just a short distance, then a youth could easily maintain ties with his or her criminogenic (p. 528) social network despite the move. On this point, Briggs, Popkin, and Goering (2010, p. 18) note in their thorough evaluation of MTO: “Changing the social relations of participants was not a primary aim of the MTO experiment. . . . But many of the hoped-for positive outcomes anticipated changes in exposure to particular kinds of peers, adult role models, and more successful neighbors.” In other words, MTO was not specifically designed to provide participants a fresh start in life by altering their social networks, but many of the hypothesized changes in behavior seemingly required just that. Because the MTO program did not require that families move a minimum distance, the program may have had little chance of separating youths from anti-social peers or with reducing criminal behavior. By implication, residential relocation may still foster desistance from crime, but there must be enough distance between the origin and destination locations to provide a true catalyst for change.

Summarizing the implications of the MTO results, it is critical to note that the intervention of the MTO program was the opportunity to move out of poverty. Moving to “opportunity” may in fact be advantageous to desisting from crime, but this opportunity may be enhanced if the move truly allows for a fresh start. In this sense, the greatest reductions in the likelihood of recidivism may be found when an ex-prisoner moves a considerable distance away from his or her old neighborhood and the new neighborhood is characterized by an abundance of social and economic resources.

There is, of course, a counterargument to any claims that residential mobility is uniformly beneficial if it means separation from familial resources. Research reveals that reuniting ex-offenders with families often provides critical support to ex-offenders as they work to desist from crime (Visher, La Vigne, and Travis 2004). Families often provide housing, financial support, assistance with job searches, and emotional support for formerly incarcerated persons. That being said, reuniting with family members is not universally beneficial. Families can be supportive, but that is not always the case. One of the well-known facts of criminology is that crime runs in the family for a variety of reasons. Many ex-prisoners have family members who are actively involved in criminal activity and drug use, and the vast majority of ex-prisoners have at least one family member who has been convicted of a crime (Visher, La Vigne, and Travis 2004). Still, to the extent that residential mobility leads to the desistance from crime, it is arguably more effective when criminogenic ties are severed and prosocial ties are maintained.

Whereas residential mobility may serve some benefit in terms of separating former offenders from the people and places associated with their past criminal activity, too many residential moves can be destabilizing, which can potentially lead to persistence of crime and recidivism (Meredith et al. 2003; Roman and Travis 2006; Geller and Curtis 2011; Harding, Morenoff, and Herbert 2013). One factor explaining the link between housing instability and recidivism is employment—the lack of stable housing makes it challenging to secure and maintain employment. Research on prisoner re-entry in Michigan suggests that parolees move frequently—an estimated 2.6 times per year for the median parolee (Harding, Morenoff, and Herbert 2013). Hence, it is important to recognize the conditions by which residential mobility may promote desistance from (p. 529) crime. Infrequent moves that sever criminogenic ties while maintaining supportive ties are more likely to promote desistance from crime than the alternatives.

IV. Residential Implications for Offender Re-entry and Re-integration Efforts

Most rehabilitation programs and services for ex-prisoners are dedicated to addressing individual determinants of criminal recidivism (e.g., education levels, drug addiction, cognitive thinking). As this chapter has revealed, there are a variety of mechanisms by which social context, and mobility away from those contexts, contribute to the persistence of, and desistance from, criminal offending. Hence, it would be fruitful to direct prisoner re-entry and re-integration efforts toward both individual and contextual determinants of behavior.

Upon exiting prison, ex-offenders most often return to the same general areas where they resided before incarceration. Many ex-prisoners still end up moving back to their former counties and neighborhoods despite an expressed interest to avoid such places (Visher and Farrell 2005). These patterns are anything but random. In fact, many states legally require parolees to return to their county of conviction or last residence when they exit prison (National Research Council 2007). There are many additional reasons why ex-prisoners are likely to return to disadvantaged neighborhoods in proximity to their former places of residence, including family and social ties as well as familiarity and attachment to particular places. Of course residence with family members may be the result of more than preference; it may also result because of limited options for other housing. The lack of housing for ex-offenders is certainly a function of the limited income, wealth, and job prospects of the typical offender, and it is also the product of the unwillingness of owners and landlords in the private housing market to rent to felons and the combination of long waiting lists for public housing assistance and the unwillingness of public housing authorities to provide units or vouchers to formerly incarcerated individuals. Also of importance is the fact that the availability of affordable housing in the United States has shrunk over the past decade at the same time that the number of households with extremely low incomes has drastically increased. For all these reasons, individuals exiting prison tend to cluster into the same few resource-deprived neighborhoods, often times returning in close proximity to the very same neighborhoods where they resided when they got into trouble with the law.

To lower recidivism, there are a number of remedies government agencies can pursue that are targeted at connecting formerly incarcerated individuals to those neighborhood contexts conducive to desistance from crime. Per the discussion above, the expansion of housing opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals into more affluent and (p. 530) resourced areas with an abundance of collective efficacy should reduce the likelihood of recidivism. However, because of politics and NIMBYism, the feasibility of such a strategy is doubtful, at least on a large scale.

To the extent that a criminal record limits access to certain housing opportunities and neighborhood environments, another possibility for reform is to limit the sale and release of mug shots and criminal record information by the government. The government could adopt an automatic expunction of criminal records for low-level offenders successfully completing deferred adjudications. The government might also prohibit public access to all non-conviction criminal records. Again, to the extent that a criminal record reduces an individual’s chances of residing in a neighborhood environment characterized by socioeconomic opportunity and institutions of informal social control, one possibility for bringing about a change in behavior is to enable access to a residential environment conducive to behavioral change. There are numerous possibilities for opening up such access, but the political will for reform must exist.


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                                                                                                                                                            (1.) Trends in the suburbanization and exurbanization of prisoner re-entry are not limited to the Chicago metropolitan area. While few research studies to date have examined this geographic shift in re-entry, there is also evidence of the suburbanization of prisoner re-entry in Austin, Texas (Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable 2014).

                                                                                                                                                            (2.) For discussion of additional causal mechanisms linking neighborhood conditions and behavior, see Jencks and Mayer (1990), Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn (2000), and Sampson, Morenoff, and Gannon-Rowley (2002).

                                                                                                                                                            (3.) Shaw and McKay (1942) suggest that affluent areas will have unconventional values and behavior to some extent, yet there is greater uniformity and consensus on values in those areas that insulates individuals from the criminal element.

                                                                                                                                                            (4.) This distinction between the effects of suburban versus intracity moves is consistent with research from the Gautreaux housing mobility program, a court-ordered residential desegregation program that resulted from a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Male youths from the Gautreaux families who moved to the Chicago suburbs were less likely to be arrested for drug, theft, and violent offenses than male youths who moved internally within Chicago (Keels 2008).