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Reducing recidivism and encouraging desistance: a social entrepreneurial approach

Robert E. Wright (Department of Research, American Institute for Economic Research, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, USA)

Journal of Entrepreneurship and Public Policy

ISSN: 2045-2101

Article publication date: 21 June 2022

Issue publication date: 25 October 2022




This paper, which is both case study and conceptual in nature, presents a relative cost-benefit model to explain why people engage in criminal activity. It then uses the model to motivate a discussion of the major policy approaches to recidivism reduction and desistance, or decreasing the frequency and severity of criminal activity, a more nuanced measure of harm reduction than the binary concept of recidivism typically used to evaluate program success. Several private programs have successfully reduced recidivism and improved measures of desistance but remain applicable only to those who self-select into them. Changed policies and incentives, however, could stimulate social entrepreneurs to search for programs applicable to additional segments of the prison population.


This paper describes case studies informed by economic theories of crime and incentive alignment. Most approaches to recidivism reduction/desistance have failed, but several programs, including the DOE Fund and PEP, have proven extremely effective: the first by employing former convicts in starter jobs and the latter by teaching inmates about entrepreneurship and general business skills and mentoring them after release.


Successful cases cannot simply be scaled up because inmates self-select into the programs. Instead, policymakers should encourage further competition and innovation in the field by paying NGOs each week they manage to keep the formerly imprisoned persons in their charge alive and out of the criminal justice system.

Research limitations/implications

Case study and theoretical. Not yet tried in the real world.

Practical implications

Lower recidivism, more desistance for the same budget.

Social implications

Humans will be better treated than currently.


Instead of offering a specific recidivism reduction panacea, this paper suggests that incentive alignment and competition for funding will encourage nonprofit NGOs to discover which programs work best for different types of inmates.



The author would like to thank, without implicating them in the article's remaining shortcomings, Andrew Smith of Liverpool, two anonymous referees, and the conferees of the Arizona State University Voluntary Governance Conference (November 2020) for useful comments and suggestions.


Wright, R.E. (2022), "Reducing recidivism and encouraging desistance: a social entrepreneurial approach", Journal of Entrepreneurship and Public Policy, Vol. 11 No. 2/3, pp. 135-148.



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