CAMDEN, NJ — Poor physical or mental health increases the likelihood that formerly-incarcerated individuals will return to crime and end up back in prison, according to a new Rutgers University–Camden study.

The study is the first one known to identify the indirect links between health limitations and recidivism and reincarceration, researchers said.

The study, published in "Criminology," uses a health-based model of desistance from crime that shows how health affects the chances of maintaining employment and positive family relationships.

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Nathan Link, assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers–Camden, said the researchers "flipped the script" in how the subject was approached. The study also included Richard Stansfield, assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers–Camden, and Jeffrey Ward, an associate professor of criminal justice at Temple University. 

“Most researchers studying mental and physical health are showing how incarceration harms mental and physical health," he said. "We are seeing how mental and physical health affect one’s ability to stop committing crimes and reenter society successfully.”

Link said prior research has determined that certain structural factors keep people on the right course — employment and strong family relationships being chief among them.

“People term these structural factors as ‘turning points,’ ” Link said. “For instance, a job pushes you away from a criminal lifestyle because your goals change. You also might define yourself differently as someone who has a job and supports a family.”

The researchers examined data from the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI), a comprehensive data set of former prisoners released in 12 states, to determine how physical and mental health at the time of release impact family conflict, employment, financial hardship, and two measures of recidivism: self-reported crime and reincarceration.

According to Link, the researchers found that physical health limitations decrease the chance of employment, consistent with their expectations.

If one’s physical health has been hampered, they argue, then an individual is less likely to secure and maintain a job. Individuals reentering society are more likely to wind up in physically-demanding jobs, such as construction, landscaping, or warehouse work.

“For instance, if you have a bad leg, you may have trouble getting to your job, or have a lot of difficulty doing the work that is expected of you,” Link said.

He said that they found that individuals who have difficulty finding and maintaining employment are more likely to reoffend and be incarcerated once again.

“From prior research, we already know that employment is a protective factor from committing crime,” Link said. “We see now how physical health strongly shapes employment prospects and ultimately affects recidivism.”

The researchers noted that those who reported having depressive symptoms were subsequently more likely to report significant family conflict. This, in turn, is shown to be a strong predictor of criminal behavior and recidivism.

“As with physical health, you see a similar dynamic where poor mental health ultimately increases the chances of reoffending and getting reincarcerated through its adverse impact on family conflict,” Link said.

From a policy standpoint, he said the findings show the need to focus efforts on improving physical and mental health among the incarcerated population and avert health-related reentry failures.

“If we don’t care about their physical and mental wellbeing, this research shows that these individuals are more likely to go out and commit crimes and get reincarcerated,” he said. “That doesn’t benefit anyone, including their family members and taxpayers.”

Among several practical and realistic health measures that Link recommends be implemented, a major effort would be ensuring incarcerated individuals have a proper diet and exercise.

He notes that opponents of the plan might argue that providing cheap, low-quality food is saving taxpayer dollars. However, the study suggests that it is only cost-saving in the short term.

“If you exacerbate or cause these health issues to emerge, you are setting in motion processes that are worse and not beneficial for anyone in the long run,” he said.

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