The launch of a landmark reintegration study

New project by the Centre for Criminological Research will be the first to examine post-prison reintegration in a Canadian context.

Carmen Rojas - 18 October 2023

A prisoner at the Edmonton Remand Centre is notified just before midnight that they’re being released. With no release plan in place – and regardless of whether they’re from the city or a community hours away – they’re dropped off in the downtown core shortly thereafter.

This precarious situation is one that criminology professor Sandra Bucerius has witnessed firsthand, and just one example of how even an incarcerated person’s best-laid plans to turn their lives around may be put in jeopardy as soon as they’re released from prison.

“The great majority of people just don't have any systematic and coordinated help when they're trying to reintegrate," she says.“When we talk to them in prison, they often tell us ‘now is the time, we’re ready to change our lives’ and they’re working towards that, but somehow it breaks down once they re-enter the community.”

Finding evidence-based ways to help people successfully reintegrate into society and decrease the ‘revolving door’ potential within the criminal justice system is the focus of a major new project being launched this fall by the Centre for Criminological Research (CCR), of which Bucerius is the founder and recently-reappointed director.

The “Reintegration: Challenges and Opportunities” project is a massive undertaking that will see Bucerius and her colleagues go into all eight provincial institutions in Alberta to conduct surveys with 75% of the incarcerated population (over 2,000 people), as well as in-depth interviews with over 100 people. The research team will follow people for their first year out of prison, surveying them at intervals throughout the year.

Drawing on her role as co-director of the University of Alberta Prison Project (UAPP) since 2016, Bucerius has assembled a team with extensive experience interviewing inmates, including former and current grad students who were trained through the UAPP. The team includes U of A criminology professors Kevin Haggerty and Jana Grekul and sociology professor Philip Badawy, Augustana sociology professor Justin Tetrault, McMaster University sociology professor Luca Berardi and 14 undergraduate and graduate students.

Bucerius is hopeful that the data they gather from the project will ultimately lead to improved release planning and programs for assisting reintegration.

“Our primary aim is to identify where reintegration breaks down, what gaps in services exist and how they can be addressed to better serve people who are trying to reintegrate,” she says.

The project will also serve to fill a glaring hole in our understanding of reintegration in a Canadian context, given that there are currently no studies examining the unique factors and barriers people here face as they attempt to successfully re-enter society.

“A mother who has children might have completely different needs when trying to reintegrate as opposed to a man who is going into the inner city or someone who is going to a reserve community,” Bucerius notes, adding that Canada’s geography and climate are factors as well. “The study, given the huge sample size, will allow us to make those differentiations between people and hopefully be able to identify evidence-based recommendations that will address the unique needs of different sub-populations.”

Bucerius explains that a truly landmark study of this kind will shape the future of the still-young CCR. Based in the Faculty of Arts, the CCR was established in 2020 to conduct research into criminal justice institutions and systems, with a particular focus on exploring how marginalized people experience the criminal justice system. A central focus of its work is to produce research with tangible, real-world impact and, in the process, to build connections between academics and stakeholders in the wider community.

"CCR’s research is a great example of the transformative work done at our university,” says Faculty of Arts Dean Robert Wood. “This work not only generates research with tangible, real-world impacts but also fosters strong connections between academics and partners in the broader community."

In 2022, the CCR received a major boost when a team led by Bucerius was awarded a $2.5 million Partnership Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada (SSHRC) to conduct a national research project aimed at reforming the Canadian justice system.

The Intersecting Institutions of Criminal Justice and Injustice Project, which consists of a series of related projects, explores the relationship between the criminal justice system and the marginalization of individuals from vulnerable communities in Canada. Along with the reintegration project, other projects will focus on aspects of policing, courts and prison.

On October 17, Bucerius was also announced as a finalist for SSHRCs 2023 Impact Awards in the Insight Award category, which is given to an individual or a team whose initiatives have significantly contributed to knowledge and understanding about people, societies and the world.