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New research identifies four factors that help women ex-convicts avoid committing crimes, offering insights that can be used to help former inmates integrate more successfully into their communities after time in prison.

"In essence, we wanted to know what factors make women who have been in prison less likely to engage in criminal activity after they're released," says Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and co-author of a paper on the work. "This was a research question that prisoners themselves came up with. They wanted to know what could give them the best chance of successful community reintegration."

For this study, researchers conducted baseline interviews with 400 women shortly after their release from prison. The study participants then self-reported on their behavior over the course of the following year. Their reporting was confidential, and the research assistants the women talked to were all former prisoners. The study was conducted in Canada.

"We wanted these women to let us know what was helping them and what was not," Desmarais says. "That requires trust. And having them interact with women who had been through similar experiences seemed like the best way to establish that trust."

The researchers found four factors that were significant in helping women avoid recidivism: good nutritional health; good spiritual health (as defined by the study participants); having a high school education; and having been convicted of drug offenses, as opposed to incarceration for other crimes.

"The link was strongest for women who had been convicted of drug offenses - they were 70 percent less likely to return to crime," Desmarais says. "This highlights the fact that drug offenders would benefit more from treatment than from incarceration - the addiction is the biggest problem there."

Women who had at least a high school education were 56 percent less likely to return to crime than those without a high school degree. Having good nutritional health reduced the likelihood of recidivism by 50 percent, and good spiritual health cut the likelihood of recidivism by 40 percent.

"We don't usually think of health as something that can improve reintegration into society, so this was a surprising finding," Desmarais says.

"Altogether, these findings offer insights that can help us develop programs and policies to improve the ability of ex-offenders to rejoin their communities. That would be valuable for communities, government agencies and the ex-offenders themselves. The study also highlights the fact that ex-offenders are not just a voiceless group to be studied, but can also offer important insights into their experiences."

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