July | August 2017

by Nathan Lowe, Ph.D. and Kimberly Cobb, M.S.
American Probation and Parole Association
Re-entry is one of the most pressing criminal justice issues in the country today.
Each year, more than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in jails and prisons, and it is estimated that more than 90 percent of these individuals will at some point be released back into the community. Yet, how prepared are communities, particularly rural communities, to receive the individuals back home?
In his 2006 article, “The Challenges of Prisoner Reentry from a Rural Perspective,” Dr. Eric Wodahl acknowledged that research on re-entry often focuses on urban areas, leaving rural
jurisdictions relying on research from other disciplines to gain a better understanding of how obstacles impede re-entry in their communities. Most of the national training and technical assistance opportunities offered to community corrections professionals focus
on issues and strategies geared toward larger, urban areas as well.
Defining what is meant by “rural” can be as complex as trying to ascertain the challenges in these communities. Rural communities vary in a number of ways—culturally, economically and socially—and the standards that define what may be considered rural in one state may be different in another, such as population density, proximity to urban places, composition of the population and economic base. This further complicates the ability of justice and social programs to generalize the applicability of concepts and strategies to rural jurisdictions. The American Probation and Parole Association, in partnership with the CSG Justice Center and the National Reentry Resource Center, recently investigated this issue by surveying agencies in rural areas. For purposes of the survey, “rural” was defined as “any location with a population less than 50,000 or a population density of 1,000 persons per square mile or less.” The sample comprised 364 individual representatives of adult community corrections agencies—probation, parole and other agencies that supervise individuals outside of prison or jail—of which about half (49 percent) were senior managers or administrators. Respondents indicated that 89 percent of the supervisees had been convicted of drug offenses, while two-thirds were property supervisees and 37 percent were violent supervisees. In addition, a ma­jority of those supervised by the participating agencies were classified at either the medium (67 percent) or high (19 percent) risk levels.
Agency respondents identified several challenges supervisees experience during the re-entry process while under post-release supervision. About two-thirds of respondents said that access to public transportation is a challenge for supervisees. Individuals on community-based supervision typically rely on public transportation to attend work and probation or parole appointments; yet, public transportation is not as widely available in rural areas as compared to urban areas. A majority of survey respondents said that various systems of public transportation were not available to supervisees in rural areas, including buses (59 percent), taxis or ridesharing services (63 percent), or trains (91 percent).
Another challenge identified by respondents was access to social services in which about half said such services were not available to those under supervision in their jurisdictions. Respondents indicated drug treatment as the most accessible type of service (72 percent of respondents said it was available in their area), followed by mental health treatment and educational services. The availability of stable housing was identified as the most prevalent challenge among the sample, with 78 percent of respondents identifying access to stable housing as a challenge in their area. This finding is concerning, given that stable housing is crucial to the successful re-entry of individuals returning to the community following incarceration.
In addition to identifying challenges to supervising individuals returning to rural communities, respondents also offered strategies for overcoming those challenges, including effective collaboration among key stakeholders within the area. One respondent said his agency coordinates with prison staff to determine the proposed area of residence for supervisees upon their release and to coordinate interviews with inmates to determine their priority needs prior to release, and with social services providers to coordinate release services.
“We have tried working out of the box to assist offenders with successful re-entry into their communities,” said another survey respondent. “Reaching out to local churches to assist with transporting offenders to appointments and serving as a community service work site. In addition, as staff members, we have done home visits, job site visits and transported offenders to residential drug treatment centers throughout our state.”
Collaboration like this also may come in the form of statewide re-entry initiatives to determine gaps and duplications in services and ways to bridge those gaps while expanding the area of availability.
Many respondents said the change in their organizational culture—by implementing more evidence-based principles and practices—has helped them overcome some of the challenges to providing adequate re-entry services in rural areas. With scarce resources, such a change has allowed community corrections agencies to focus on the quality of their work, thereby increasing the efficiency of the supervision and services they provide to supervisees. One respondent indicated her agency has started conducting more frequent home and field visits for those supervisees who lack transportation and using agency vehicles to transport supervisees to and from appointments.
Respondents also reported that increased availability of funding, provided through state legislation and federal grants such as the Transition from Prison to the Community Initiative and the Second Chance Act, has enhanced the resources they have been able to provide to meet the re-entry needs of supervisees in rural areas.
The supervision of individuals returning from jail or prison to rural American communities presents many challenges, but community supervision agencies in rural areas seem to be embracing these challenges with resilient ways to overcome them. While exploratory, the survey results are promising and should lead to further investigation of nuances between rural and urban jurisdictions with respect to re-entry supervision.

About the Author

Dr. Nathan Lowe conducts research/evaluation and provides training/technical assistance on a variety of issues related to the community corrections field, such as risk assessment for impaired drivers and the quality of interactions between officers and supervisees, for the American Probation and Parole Association.
Kimberly Cobb is a research project administrator at the University of Kentucky. She previously served as a research associate for the American Probation and Parole Association, where she managed training and technical assistance projects to enhance community corrections programs in American Indian nations and Alaska Native villages.