The Marshall Project

Training the Brain to Stay out of Jail

How one ambitious program aims to reduce crime by changing how repeat offenders think.

Growing up in public housing in North Charleston, S.C., in the 1970s, David Hayward was familiar with poverty, violence and loss. His mother, grandmother and brother all died when he was young, and his father was in prison. He became addicted to alcohol and cocaine and occasionally lived under bridges and in abandoned buildings, he says. Over the years, his rap sheet grew: At least 15 arrests, mostly for minor crimes like driving with a suspended license and possession of drug paraphernalia but twice for armed robbery, leading to six stints in jail.

In other words, Hayward is a typical “repeat offender.”

Crime statistics make clear that in the U.S., a handful of young men are responsible for an outsized share of crime. Like Hayward, they are often exposed as children to violence and trauma, parental incarceration, addiction, and poverty, all contributing to a lifelong inability to stay out of prison.

Yet experts in the burgeoning field of prisoner re-entry, which supports former inmates, don’t agree on what—short of addressing systemic issues

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