What You Should Know About Halfway Houses

Halfway houses are a key element of the criminal justice system. Learn about the importance of these institutions and the assistance they require.

historic image of halfway house

At some point in your life, you have probably heard the term “halfway house” in relation to rehabilitation of some form. However, there is little publicly available information regarding these institutions, and few people really know how they function. Essentially, halfway houses are less strict ‘community prisons’ where low-risk prisoners can live and work together without the overbearing restrictions of traditional prisons.

Halfway houses are an important element of the criminal justice system and serve as a method of slowly adjusting prisoners back into normal life. In the past, they simply acted as a transitional stage in the final six months of a prisoner’s sentence. Since President Bush passed the Second Chance Act in 2008, eligible prisoners can now spend the final year of their sentence in a halfway house and the final six months under “home confinement”.1

What Is a Halfway House?

A halfway house is a center designed to help criminals rehabilitate back into society. The name implies that the center is a halfway point between leaving prison and rejoining everyday life. In most cases, inmates can leave the facility for approved activities like work, job seeking, counseling or certain forms of recreation.2

The earliest halfway houses were developed in 18th-century England and originally intended for children that had been arrested for petty crimes. The first privately owned U.S. halfway house was opened by Maud Ballington Booth in 1896, located in New York. It was intended to help criminals of all ages reintegrate into their communities, find jobs, improve their health and stay sober.3

Nowadays, there are various types of halfway houses. Some focus on rehabilitating drug addicts or alcoholics, whereas others are focused on reintroducing prisoners back into society. U.S. prison policy defines federally-sponsored halfway houses as Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs). There are also several state-sponsored or private halfway houses with various names, such as Transitional Centers or Community Recovery Centers.

In this article, we will be focusing primarily on prison halfway houses intended for the rehabilitation of criminals.

Functions of a Halfway House for Prisoners

Prison halfway houses, or RRCs, are aimed at helping criminals reintegrate into society. Usually, a low-risk criminal with a year left on their sentence will be given the option of serving the remainder in a halfway house as a way to improve their chances when back in the real world. In most cases, they can choose not to attend a halfway house and rather finish their sentence in prison, but very few take this option. In some cases, spending time in a halfway house will be a condition of a prisoner’s probation.

A halfway house is typically a large living facility where transitioning prisons live together as a community. The rules and security in a prison halfway house are less stringent than in prisons since these inmates are usually a lower flight risk. However, halfway house inmates are still required to attend certain programs, complete work duties and follow curfew rules. When considering an inmate for transfer to a halfway house for prisoners, a case manager will take into account several factors. These include but are not limited to:4

  • The nature and circumstances of the inmate’s crime
  • The inmate’s character and prison history
  • Statements made during the court case
  • The type of correctional facility recommended by the judge
  • Policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission

Staff Responsibilities

Halfway houses often employ staff with qualifications in criminology to assist in the process of transitioning prisoners back into the outside world. They maintain a close relationship with law enforcement, constantly monitoring a prisoner’s situation and gathering information to share with other criminal justice departments.

Staff will also assess a prisoner’s behavior and decide when they can move to less-restrictive environments within the halfway house. They are expected to keep tight surveillance on prisoners and conduct regular searches of their belongings.

Problems That Halfway Houses Face

There is a lack of standardized, transparent policies across the U.S. that define exactly how halfway houses should operate. For this reason, there are broad discrepancies between the quality and efficiency of the services on offer. Audits are rare, with only eight having been conducted on federal RRCs since 2013,5 and even then, they have been criticized for “woeful inadequacies” that are “indicative of a larger systemic failure.”6

Unlike prisons, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) doesn’t publish detailed information about the populations of halfway houses. Furthermore, privately-run and state-contracted halfway houses release very little publically available data, making it difficult to get an accurate idea of their effectiveness. Critics feel these shortcomings could result in unsatisfactory conditions and negatively impact residents.

Often, problems are only discovered when investigations are conducted by independent journalists. A string of interviews conducted by the New York Times in 2012 uncovered reports of violence, drug use and gang activity prevalent in halfway houses.7 Further reports highlight operational blunders, gang activity, general misconduct and high staff turnover rates.8

More recently, an investigation by the Intercept revealed underreporting of COVID-19 cases in halfway houses across the U.S. Some residents even claimed they had been asked to hide positive COVID-19 test results, raising extreme cause for concern.9

How Can You Help?

Halfway houses perform a necessary function in the U.S. criminal justice system, but there are many areas that need improvement. The system is in dire need of highly trained and educated individuals who can pinpoint problem areas and develop solutions.

If you feel you have what it takes to tackle these issues, consider an Online MA in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Kent State University. This degree is not intended to train law enforcement officers but rather teach students how to make structural improvements within the criminal justice space.

The Kent State Master’s Degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice offers three concentrations: Policing, Victimology and Global Security. Policing trains students on how to develop policies and procedures for the policing sector, Victimology focuses on the rights and treatment of victims and Global Security is the study of homeland security and cybersecurity practices.


  1. Retrieved on March 2, 2020, from csgjusticecenter.org/nrrc/projects/second-chance-act/
  2. Retrieved on March 2, 2020, from bop.gov/about/facilities/residential_reentry_management_centers.jsp
  3. Retrieved on March 2, 2020, from encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/halfway-house
  4. Retrieved on March 2, 2020, from prisonprofessors.com/prepare-for-halfway-house-and-home-confinement/
  5. Retrieved on March 2, 2020, from oig.justice.gov/reports?keys=reentry+center&field_publication_date_value=&field_publication_date_value_1=&field_doj_component_target_id=All&field_report_type_target_id=All&field_location_country_code=All&sort_by=field_publication_date_value&sort_order=DESC&items_per_page=10
  6. Retrieved on March 2, 2020, from prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/09/03/halfway/
  7. Retrieved on March 2, 2020, from nytimes.com/2012/06/17/nyregion/in-new-jersey-halfway-houses-escapees-stream-out-as-a-penal-business-thrives.html
  8. Retrieved on March 2, 2020, from westword.com/news/can-a-troubled-colorado-prison-change-the-way-inmates-think-5101471
  9. Retrieved on March 2, 2020, from theintercept.com/2020/05/28/coronavirus-federal-prison-halfway-houses/
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