Can Housing Interventions Reduce Incarceration and Recidivism?

by Kimberly Burrowes

Over the past two decades, criminal justice reform has focused on evidence-based interventions to prevent arrests and incarceration and to facilitate community reintegration. These initiatives represent a movement toward a less punitive, more holistic approach to public safety, targeting critical social factors that lead to and perpetuate criminal justice involvement. Because housing problems are often a key underlying factor for people’s involvement with the criminal justice system, there are ways housing interventions can help lessen criminal justice involvement. Decriminalizing homelessness, for example, can reduce rates of initial arrest and incarceration, especially for people with low-level, nonviolent offenses. A sufficient supply of affordable housing and supportive services could help people stabilize after their release from jail and reduce the likelihood of recidivism. Policymakers, advocates, and practitioners in housing and criminal justice systems can partner to promote and evaluate housing strategies that divert people from the criminal justice system.

A lack of suitable housing puts people at risk of arrest and incarceration, so could access to better housing be a justice policy solution?

How housing interventions can help prevent criminal justice involvement 

The relationship between housing and criminal justice involvement is complex and can vary from place to place. Additional research demonstrating the extent to which housing instability is a pipeline to incarceration is necessary to accurately inform policymaking. But many state and local governments that employ housing strategies for their most vulnerable populations have experienced reduced criminal behavior among some subpopulations.

Research shows that families living in high-poverty areas are more likely to be associated with crime-related activity, either as a victim, as a witness, or as the person accused or arrested. Although there may be other neighborhood variables, such as unemployment and peer influences, exposure to the risk of being either a person who commits a crime or victim is high. When people are stably housed, they have fewer recorded non-violent offenses. For instance, people commit fewer survival crimes (offenses like theft, robbery, trespassing, loitering, and prostitution), which are chief reasons people with low-level offenses are incarcerated. A 2008 report (PDF) on survival crimes in Canadian cities saw an increase in poverty-related crimes because of a lack of services, such as affordable housing, to alleviate families’ financial burdens. In particular, for people with co-occurring mental or physical health disorders, housing can be a factor that leads to diversion from entering the jail system.

Many youth experiencing homelessness may also spend time in the juvenile or adult justice systems. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice (PDF) found that 1 in 10 young adults ages 18 to 24 experience homelessness, and nearly half have also been incarcerated. Often, this is because of fines and fees that stem from a lack of housing (PDF). Like adults, youth experiencing homelessness might be incarcerated for violating curfews, loitering, or sitting or sleeping outdoors. Without stable housing, it is nearly impossible for youth to avoid these ordinances.

Using housing as a preventive strategy for justice involvement requires more than access to stable housing—it also requires decent quality housing (PDF). Decent-quality housing refers to housing in good repair that is free of safety hazards and unsanitary conditions. Living in inadequate housing can cause children to miss school, increase mental health issues, and create other challenges that increase their likelihood of becoming disconnected from formal systems. Research has demonstrated the effect of housing quality on youth, whereby children who suffer from lead poisoning are six times more likely to become involved in juvenile delinquency as adolescents. A recent study in Rhode Island found that boys with high blood lead levels were the most likely to have increased antisocial behavior and to become incarcerated. Exposure to lead is much higher in public housing than other developments, which puts low-income families disproportionately at risk, increasing the likelihood that these youths become justice involved.

How housing interventions can help after criminal justice involvement

Exiting jail is a major risk factor to housing stability. There is a large overlap in populations experiencing homelessness and prior involvement in the criminal or juvenile justice systems. Formerly incarcerated people are 10 times more likely than the general public to become homeless. This revolving door of incarceration is perpetuated when people are not connected to the housing services they need after release. In addition, when people cannot find stable housing, they are more likely to recidivate. Findings from the Returning Home Ohio Pilot Project showed that participants receiving supportive housing services were 40 percent less likely to be rearrested. Women of color are also disproportionately more vulnerable to becoming homeless after incarceration and were thus susceptible to recidivating.

People who were formerly incarcerated face barriers to accessing and staying in stable housing:

  • People who were formerly incarcerated are more likely to suffer from substance use issues, mental health disorders, and other challenges that can impede their search for safe, stable, good-quality housing.
  • Landlords and property owners often discriminate against applicants who are formerly incarcerated. In high-cost markets, the demand for affordable housing is great, and landlords can legally limit lessees’ opportunities to secure housing.
  • Housing security extends beyond getting people off the streets and into a home—it also means ensuring they can stay in that home. For every 10,000 formerly incarcerated people, 570 were housing insecure, demonstrating that more needs to be done to leverage community resources for supportive services.

Promising strategies: A focus on Milwaukee

Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, like other jurisdictions, implemented Housing First to reduce reentry to jail. Milwaukee found that after a year of service delivery, municipal violations decreased by 82 percent, and the number of people experiencing homelessness decreased from 1,521 to 900. Results showed a decrease in the use of jail beds and a decrease in homelessness, housing instability, and overall costs to the system. Milwaukee also instituted homelessness outreach teams staffed by police officers to divert violations that could be addressed through housing-focused solutions. This focus on joint cost savings is a key component of how the county has approached the connection between justice system involvement and housing.

The dual challenge of reducing housing instability and incarceration is no easy feat. Although employing Housing First practices and addressing discriminatory practices can help alleviate the problem, these complex issues require comprehensive solutions. Jurisdictions should think critically about how to begin or expand justice and housing partnerships to ensure that sufficient housing security and services are available. This approach could include developing collaborative programs, leveraging joint funding opportunities to maximize resources, and increasing communication for criminal justice systems to better understand supportive housing services and opportunities. Ensuring that suitable long- and short-term housing options exist can help jurisdictions effectively reduce jail populations.


For more research on justice policy and practice at the national, state, and local levels, visit the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center web page.

Evelyn F. McCoy provided thorough review for this blog post, but all opinions or errors should be attributed to the authors alone.

Photo by Jon Bilous/Shutterstock