4. Coordinating US action on prisoner reoffending



The US government developed the Federal Interagency Re-entry Council to tackle high rates of reoffending among prisoners, which has complex health implications for prisoners and their families and communities. The Council facilitated cross-government collaboration to improve prisoners’ transition to the community and tackle the complex causes of reoffending.





The Sentencing Reform Act is passed under President Ronald Reagan’s administration as part of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984.


President George W Bush’s State of the Union address commits to giving ex-criminals a second chance by announcing the Prisoner Re-entry Initiative.


The Second Chance Act is signed into law.


National Re-entry Resource Center is developed as part of the Second Chance Act.


President Barack Obama is elected.


Federal Interagency Re-entry Council is convened (‘the Federal Council’).


The Government Accountability Office gives the Federal Council an award, as a model interagency collaboration.


President issues a formal memorandum for the Federal Council in January.


The Justice Department designates National Re-entry Week for April.


President Donald Trump is elected.


Publication of An evaluation of seven Second Chance Act adult demonstration programs: impact findings at 18 months.


As part of the ‘war on drugs’ in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Reagan administration introduced sentencing laws that led to rapid increases in offender sentencing and reoffending rates. This was accompanied by a lack of consensus on what action was needed to address the problem within the criminal justice community.

Today, the US has the highest levels of imprisonment in the world, with a rate of 655 prisoners per 100,000 people in 2016. Being a prisoner or ex-prisoner is linked to poor health outcomes and restricted access to important determinants of health, such as employment, education and housing. These disadvantages also have knock-on effects on prisoners’ families and communities.

The intervention

Under the leadership of the Attorney General during the Clinton administration, the Department of Justice hosted a series of expert roundtables, with accompanying papers, to explore how to address rising prisoner numbers. Drawing on lessons from drug offender programmes, one proposal called on actors to build cross-sector relationships to create a comprehensive system of support for prisoners as they were released from prison, spanning housing, employment and other sectors.

As the issue was debated and explored within the criminal justice community, it gained mainstream attention and widespread public and political support when President Bush committed to an initiative to support prisoners in their transition into the community (termed ‘re-entry’) in his 2004 State of the Union address. In 2007, with bipartisan support, the Bush administration then passed the Second Chance Act, which expanded support for people leaving prison.

Building on the Second Chance Act, in 2011 the Obama administration established the Federal Interagency Re-entry Council, to develop effective re-entry policy and coordinate cross-sector action. The Federal Council’s goals were to make communities safer by reducing reoffending, to help those returning from prison to become productive citizens, and to make financial savings by lowering the direct and wider societal costs of imprisonment.

The Federal Council was chaired by the Attorney General and comprised political leaders and civil servants from each government department. This structure was designed to foster cross-government coordination and sustain action spanning political administrations.

Working towards its goals, the Federal Council and its members developed policies and supported work in a range of sectors, including employment, education, health care and housing. For example, it facilitated the ‘Ban the Box’ policy, which removed the requirement for job applicants to disclose prior criminal convictions at the initial stage of applying for federal jobs. Today, for most federal jobs, criminal history checks take place after a conditional job offer has been made. This has removed an important barrier to work for ex-offenders.

To support ex-prisoners to access stable housing, the Federal Council helped dispel common myths about ex-prisoners’ eligibility for public housing. It clarified the complex laws on this issue and produced a one-page guidance document, explaining that exclusion from public housing applies only to one specific type of conviction.


In 2016, the White House and the Department of Justice published The Federal Interagency Reentry Council: a record of progress and a roadmap for the future. This document reported the key successes of the Federal Council’s first five years and recommended future actions. Successes detailed in the report included:

  • Removing barriers to employment for people with criminal records, such as initiating ‘Ban the Box’ (which delayed criminal history checks for federal job applicants), facilitating a new grant-giving scheme to help prisoners become ready for employment, and expanding a micro-loan scheme for businesses with a staff member on probation or parole.
  • Expanding access to education, including a pilot programme giving prisoners grants to pursue post-secondary education.
  • Reducing barriers to housing by clarifying the rules on access to public housing for people with criminal records.

The US prison population began a steady decline from a peak of 755 per 100,000 people in 2008 (when the Second Chance Act was introduced) to 655 per 100,000 in 2016. The investment and programmes that followed the act, including the work of the Federal Council, are likely to have contributed to this decline.

In recognition of its success, the government expanded membership of the Federal Council from seven to 20 departments. In 2014, the Government Accountability Office identified the Federal Council as one of four model interagency collaborations. This set a positive example for many states and localities and several started similar councils.

Lessons learned

What worked well

  • Many years of cross-sector work on reoffending created a community of interest that helped develop consensus-based solutions and carry out relevant research and pilot programmes. This created a favourable environment for the eventual establishment of the Federal Council.
  • Re-entry policy actors used evidence-based arguments to reframe the problem of reoffending from one of a perceived threat to public safety that could not be solved to one of opportunity. This gained support from a wide variety of actors with different interests – a factor that was critical in driving and sustaining change.
  • The Second Chance Act provided a legal mandate and resources that galvanised interest and action on prison reform and re-entry policy across all sectors. The legal duty to remove barriers to prisoner re-entry created a climate in which the Federal Council could be established and flourish.
  • The financial crisis and associated budget crises across local and national government in the late 2000s created a policy window to establish the Federal Council as a way to address the costs of reoffending.
  • Although the Federal Council did not have any dedicated funding, it was able to draw successfully on other resources, such as members, champions from business and ex-prisoners to help further its objectives.
  • The Federal Council’s governance structure, with a Cabinet-level council and a complementary civil-servant tier, maximised cross-sector coordination, minimised duplication, enhanced the use of evidence-based practices, and ensured sustained action.

What worked less well

Despite the Federal Council’s significant achievements, the US continues to have the highest levels of incarceration in the world and there continue to be barriers to re-entry. For example:

  • Coordinating joined-up efforts and actions across agencies to support prisoners’ re-entry is an ongoing challenge.
  • Some still perceive re-entry as a threat to society. The Federal Council has been working to present it, instead, as an opportunity to help people to get more out of their lives, stay out of prison and save taxpayers’ funding.
  • Because of the complexity of the re-entry agenda, definitive evidence of impact can be difficult to achieve – particularly in an environment with multiple programmes and funding streams. This can be used as an excuse for inaction.

Implications for the UK

Reducing reoffending and improving rehabilitation services are priorities for the government. In 2019, the UK imprisonment rate was 138 per 100,000 people – the highest in Western Europe and second in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) incarceration league table after the US. Record prisoner numbers in the UK have affected safety, decency, security and order in prisons and contributed to overcrowding. Rehabilitation services and initiatives are stretched and fragmented, and failing to deliver effective, joined-up support.

This case study shows how a cross-departmental government committee can coordinate and promote cross-sectoral action to support people as they leave prison and create the conditions for ex-prisoners to integrate back into society. The US experience also offers some useful practical solutions, such as altering employment practices and offering education and training opportunities to people in prison.

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