University of Texas at Austin

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Natural experiment follows natural disaster

David Kirk

David Kirk

Many residents of New Orleans could not go home after Hurricane Katrina devastated their neighborhoods.

This was not such a bad thing for people being released from prison, says David Kirk, an assistant professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin.

In fact, Kirk’s recent research, published in the June issue of American Sociological Review, indicates that those not returning to the old neighborhood had a better chance of staying out of prison than those who went back to their pre-prison places and patterns.

“Ex-prisoners often fall into the same habits and routines that got them into trouble in the first place,” Kirk said. “The destruction from Katrina forced some ex-prisoners to sever peer ties and to establish new routine activities. My study concludes that doing so is important for reducing the likelihood of recidivism.”

The natural disaster of the hurricane presented the opportunity for a natural experiment, one in which the world offers a situation that could not be set up in a laboratory.

The study included two pre-Katrina groups consisting of 1,538 and 1,731 parolees, as well as 1,370 post-Katrina parolees, all of whom were originally convicted in the New Orleans metropolitan area.

Kirk realized he had a research opportunity when he visited New Orleans, where he has family, in December 2005, four months after the hurricane hit.

“It was shocking and readily apparent that it would not be possible for people to return to such neighborhoods, at least not for awhile,” he said.

It also happened that some of the hardest hit neighborhoods were those where ex-prisoners typically live after release from prison, he said.

For his project, Kirk looked at the parishes of Orleans (which includes the Ninth Ward), Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard and St. Tammany.

His pitch for the project to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections came at the same time the department restarted its prisoner re-entry initiatives after the hurricane.

“In my case,” Kirk said, “I was fortunate to connect with justice administrators with an expressed interest in prisoner reentry.”

According to the study, ex-prisoners who have relocated away from their prior residence are 15 percent less likely to be re-incarcerated within the first year of their release from prison.

In Louisiana, male offenders who return to the same parish where they lived prior to incarceration have a 0.26 probability of re-incarceration within one year of release from prison. That’s comparable to other jurisdictions.

What Kirk found was that male offenders who moved have a 0.11 probability of re-incarceration.

That is, out of 100 ex-prisoners returning to their neighborhoods, 26 would be back in prison within a year. For those moving elsewhere, just 11 out of 100 were back behind bars.

“These differences are substantial and significant,” he said.

How far away does an ex-prisoner have to move to escape the influence of the home fires?

That’s what Kirk is working on now.

“Moving has benefits, but moving to Shreveport may lower the likelihood of incarceration by the same amount as moving to Phoenix,” he said. “The key factor is the capacity to separate from one’s peers and former routine activities.”

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