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Now, if it's true that you can learn from adversity, Hurricane Katrina was a brutal graduate school. When it struck New Orleans in 2005, the storm taught many lessons about the climate, about levees, about the resilience of systems. And it also gave social scientists material for a natural experiment into the nature of crime. NPR's Shankar Vedantam talked with our colleague David Greene.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: So what exactly is the experiment they were able to set up here?>>VEDANTAM: Well, the disaster rendered many neighborhoods in New Orleans uninhabitable. And David Kirk - he's a sociologist at the University of Texas - he immediately realized that a natural experiment was unfolding. And that's because he studies recidivism. This is the likelihood that people who are released from prison will go back to a life of crime and go back to prison. He's interested in whether recidivism is shaped by whether the people released from prison go back to the neighborhoods they came from. Now, in most parts of the country, people who are released from prison often find their way back to their old neighborhoods. Many states actually require parolees to go back to the counties they came from. Kirk wanted to know whether was possible that going to a different community - can that help you to turn over new leaf.
GREENE: And because of the sad circumstances after Katrina, I presume the point here is that there were a lot of neighborhoods that were destroyed. So there were more prisoners who were not able to go back to their old neighborhoods.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: That's exactly right. At least in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, many parolees were not going back to the neighborhoods they had come from. What Kirk did was he compared the outcomes for people who were released from prison who went back to their old haunts and those who did not. Hear he is.
DAVID KIRK: What I found is that if people move home, it increase their likelihood of recidivism. In a number of states like Texas, policies are set up to return people, basically, to the areas where they resided prior to incarceration. And that's, in essence, a recipe for disaster.
GREENE: So he's finding maybe it's not a recipe for disaster when people are getting out of prison and going to neighborhoods that they did not live in before. Why does he think that is?
VEDANTAM: Well, in some ways, this is sort of the foundational idea of sociology, David, which is that the environment that you are in really plays a very important role in shaping your behavior. And it's not just in turning over new leaf. When we have concentration of people who come from prison, they may share skills involving how to commit crimes. Parolees might come out of a prison system with negative attitudes toward the criminal justice system and toward law enforcement and police. And they may transmit those opinions and attitudes toward other people living in their communities. Kirk also finds, by the way, that the effect on crime is not just limited to people who formerly went to prison. Having a concentration of ex-prisoners in your neighborhood affects people who hadn't been to prison previously.
KIRK: People that are living in neighborhoods with high concentrations of ex-prisoners are more likely to go to prison than people that are living in neighborhoods without that many former prisoners.
GREENE: Let me just make sure I understand what's going on here because he's saying that when people come back to neighborhoods after being imprisoned, they might influence other people. People who were never in jail might end up committing a crime. That could be potentially because of these people getting out of prison but also maybe just the conditions in the neighborhood, right?
VEDANTAM: That's right. So context can be driven by any number of different factor. It could be driven by something in the neighborhood itself. Maybe some environmental factor possibly. But it could also just be driven by the context of people coming back and lots of people sharing criminal knowledge or criminal skills or norms about criminal behavior that then gets spread through the community.
GREENE: One thing you mentioned here, Shankar, that policies often say that prisoners are supposed to return to their old neighborhoods when they get out of prison. Is that a policy that should be reconsidered here given this research we are talking about?
VEDANTAM: I think David Kirk would argue that's exactly what we should be doing, and to be fair, many criminologists have suggested this idea for a long time. The problem is in many parts of the country, we have very high concentrations of ex-prisoners. So in Illinois, for example, nearly half of all prisoners were released state wide, returned to the city of Chicago and very large numbers of them returned to just six neighborhoods. Now, this is driven partly by social and policy factors. It's also the case that prisoners find it hard to get housing and to find work and so they go back because that's where their networks exist. But these policies and these norms might be having an unintentional effect on crime and dispersing prisoners over a larger geographical area - it might actually lower the crime rate and lower recidivism.
GREENE: But also in theory, cost money if government, for example, had to pay to help people get a fresh start elsewhere.
VEDANTAM: That's right. And it creates problems in some ways because you're having Louisiana prisoners now in Texas and people in Texas might say, we don't want to deal with them. We just want to deal with Texas offenders, and it is not our problem. So keep them in Louisiana.
GREENE: Shankar, thanks as always.
VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. You can find him on twitter @hiddenbrain. You'll find this program @morningedition and @NPRinskeep. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.