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The environment in which people live can impact them in significant, long-lasting ways, from mental state to criminal behavior, and one team of UALR researchers is seeking a deeper understanding of these effects. For the next two years, Dr. Tusty ten Bensel, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, and Dr. Michael Craw, Assistant Professor of Public Administration, will pursue their project “The Impact of Neighborhood Context on Recidivism among Offenders in Arkansas,” supported by one of ORSP’s fall 2015 Research Cluster Seed Grants.
The researchers will be investigating the role environmental factors play in recidivism—repeat offending—in Pulaski County. The $50,000 grant will enable them to analyze data about both the former inmates and the communities that house them. The project will examine a myriad of statistical factors for the neighborhoods, as well as the basic demographics, prison behavior, and past charges, of released offenders. This information will be gathered from preexisting data, obtained by the Arkansas Department of Corrections and the 2008-14 American Community Survey, on individuals released over the last ten years in Pulaski County.
While the connection between environmental factors and initial offending has been established by research, as has the likelihood for offenders to offend again, little research has been done to draw a direct line between environmental factors and recidivism. Dr. ten Bensel and Dr. Craw’s work aims to fill this knowledge gap. After analyzing the data, they will develop theories on any connections between recidivism and living environments.
The researchers explained the potential negative impact of a neighborhood on its residents in their grant proposal: “socially isolated and economically impoverished neighborhoods have high rates of crime and disorder, unemployment, poor health care access among residents, heightened levels of mortality, sporadic to non-existent access to social services, [and] high rates of drug addiction and incarceration.” Perhaps most importantly, these disadvantaged neighborhoods often lack social capital—the positive, productive relationship and support networks that bind and grow communities.
Not only do these environments tend to produce offenders, but many ex-offenders return there upon release, giving them ample opportunities to offend again. The reasons for returning are multifold: according to Dr. ten Bensel, “for these individuals, it is a matter of being close to family and friends, finding employment, housing, and simply living affordability.”
Unfortunately, the researchers assert, returning to toxic neighborhoods “limits educational, vocational, and social support services” for released offenders. Additionally, Dr. ten Bensel explains that “when individuals return to the same environment in which they initially committed their crimes, it is likely they will be confronted with similar criminal opportunities and peer networks.” It’s not surprising, then, that around half of all released Arkansas inmates will eventually end up back in prison.
In the face of these statistics, Dr. ten Bensel is optimistic about the potential of the project. “If we find that neighborhood characteristics and lack of resources are one of the reasons why individuals return to prison in Pulaski County, then I hope this project can begin conversations about investing resources and revitalizing our disadvantaged communities.”
The results will produce both academic and practical benefits for the criminal justice field. Dr. ten Bensel and Dr. Craw hope to publish concrete recommendations for building communities that foster offender rehabilitation rather than perpetuate criminality. Promoting growth in disadvantaged neighborhoods would be transformative for both released offenders and non-criminals alike, Dr. ten Bensel asserts. “This may not only increase public safety and reduce recidivism rates and disorder, but also reduce fear of crime in those neighborhoods, which can lead to informal social control and social capital.”