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The US prison and parole population declined in 2009 for the first time in 30 years, perhaps indicating the beginning of the end of America’s long commitment to mass incarceration. But current prison population declines may well be reversed if we do not do a better job of planning for the reentry of prisoners who have finished their sentences. At release, many prisoners are unable to find jobs and suitable housing. Some will be legally barred from voting, receiving public assistance, obtaining a driver’s license, or retaining custody of their children. If the past is any lesson, many (upward of two-thirds) eventually return to crime and prison, where the cycle begins again.
Faced with these realities, what can we do? Fortunately, there is much that can be done. We must focus attention on parole policies and practices. Parole – which refers to both a release mechanism and a method of community supervision – is central to crime control and prisoner reintegration. If parole is effective, dangerous offenders remain in prison, and those who are released are better prepared for reentry. If parole resources are misdirected, community safety is threatened as prisoners return home with few resources and little surveillance. Which scenario proves true will depend on realistic expectations and an understanding of parole’s history, current operations, needs of the parole population, and “what works” in reentry programming.
Fundamentals Of Parole And Reentry
Definition And Functions Of Parole
People often confuse probation and parole. Probation is a judge’s sentence that allows a convicted offender to continue to live in the community after criminal conviction, with restrictions on activities and with supervision for the duration of the sentence. Parole refers to offenders who have spent time in prison and are released to complete the remainder of their sentence under community supervision. Parole is usually granted from authorities in the correctional system (i.e., a parole board), since responsibility for offenders passes from the judicial system to the correctional system upon imprisonment. Parolees are technically still in state custody; they have merely been granted the privilege of living in the community instead of prison. If parolees or probationers violate the rules of their release, they can be returned to incarceration.
Inmates are released from prison mandatorily or discretionarily. Mandatory release is release after a specified period of time, as required by law, and occurs in jurisdictions using determinate sentencing. In determinate sentencing, the offender is given a set amount of time to serve by the court, although these sentencing structures may still incorporate a degree of discretion. Determinate sentencing eliminates parole boards, although the exact requirements vary by state. Discretionary release is at the paroling authority’s discretion, within boundaries established by the sentence and by law.
In those states that permit discretionary release, state laws give parole boards the authority to change, within certain limits, the length of a sentence that is actually served. Parole officials may also change the conditions under which convicted offenders are supervised and may release offenders from prison to supervision in the community or to an outside facility. Parole authorities can also issue warrants revoking parole and reincarcerating offenders who violate parole conditions. For jurisdictions with determinate sentencing and no discretion for the timing of release, the paroling authority may still determine conditions of release. They thus can have a direct effect on prison management. For example, they can increase the number of prisoners required to be on post-prison supervision, or they can decrease, by policy, the number of parole revocations returned to prison. It is this gatekeeper role that makes paroling authorities so central to current debates about prisoner reentry and prison crowding.
With parole, like probation, information about an offender is gathered and presented to a decision-making authority, and that authority has the power to release the offender under specific conditions, which are articulated in a contract signed by the offender. Contractual conditions may be standard (applicable to all parolees) or tailored to particular offenders. Standard parole conditions are similar throughout most jurisdictions and include payment of supervision fees, finding employment, not carrying weapons, reporting changes of address and employment, not committing crimes, and submitting to search by the police and parole officers. Examples of special conditions include periodic drug testing for substance abusers and registration for sex offenders and arsonists.
The principal responsibility of the parole officer is to monitor this court-imposed contract and conditions. If offenders fail to live up to their conditions, they can be revoked and returned to jail or prison to serve out the remainder of the original sentence or to serve a new sentence. Parole can be revoked for two reasons: (1) the commission of a new crime or (2) the violation of the conditions of parole (a technical violation). Technical violations pertain to behavior that is not criminal, such as the failure to refrain from alcohol use or remain employed. In either event, the violation process is rather straightforward. Given that parolees are technically still in the legal custody of the court or prison authorities, their constitutional rights are severely limited. When parole officers become aware of violations of the parole contract, they notify their supervisors, who make a recommendation to the parole authorities and can easily return a parolee to prison. Two US Supreme Court cases, Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471 (1972) and Gagnon v. Scarpelli, 411 U.S. 778 (1973), established minimum requirements for the revocation of parole, giving parolees some rights (such as written notice of the violation and the opportunity to confront the accuser) in revocation proceedings.
The goals of probation and parole supervision are identical: to protect the community and help rehabilitate offenders. These dual functions are referred to as the law enforcement function, which emphasizes surveillance of the offender and close control of behavior, and the social work function, which attempts to provide supportive services to meet offenders’ needs. Both have always been a part of community corrections, and debating which should be of higher priority has always caused strain. Currently, the social work function has given way to the law enforcement function, and probation and parole officers are often less interested today in treating clients than in controlling their behavior. Higher risk clients, combined with shrinking resources, has caused many agents to prioritize offender monitoring. Parole agents are equipped with legal authority to carry and use firearms; to search places, persons, and property without the requirements imposed by the Fourth Amendment (i.e., the right to privacy); to order arrests without probable cause; and to confine without bail.
Monitoring parolee behavior and delivering services is managed through caseloads (the number of parolees assigned to a single parole agent). Higher-risk parolees are placed on smaller caseloads, which facilitate more intensive services and surveillance. Caseload assignment is usually based on a structured assessment of parolee risk and an assessment of the needs or problem areas that have contributed to the parolee’s criminality. By scoring personal information relative to the risk of recidivism and the particular needs of the offender (i.e., a risk/need instrument), a total score is derived, which determines the particular level of parole supervision (e.g., intensive, medium, regular, administrative). Each jurisdiction has established policies that dictate the contact levels (times the officer will meet with the parolee). Officers may also contact family members or employers to inquire about the parolee’s progress. The purpose of the contacts is to make sure that parolees are complying with parole conditions.
Parole And Reentry
The term prisoner reentry began affecting community corrections in early 2000. Unlike probation and parole, prisoner reentry is not a legal status or program, but a new conceptual framework for thinking about the processing of criminal offenders, from sentencing to parole discharge. Prisoner reentry is defined as the process of leaving incarceration and returning to society and includes all activities and programming conducted to prepare ex-convicts to return safely to the community and to live as law-abiding citizens (Petersilia 2003). Reentry is an inevitable consequence of incarceration. As Jeremy Travis (Travis 2005, p. xxi) reminds us, “reentry is not a form of supervision, like parole. Reentry is not a goal, like rehabilitation or reintegration. Reentry is not an option. Reentry reflects the iron law of imprisonment: they all come back.”
Refocusing the justice system around a reentry perspective represents a fundamental paradigm shift that impacts decisions about the timing of release, the procedures for making the release decision, the preparation of the prisoner for release, supervision after release, and the linkages between in-prison and post-release activities.
Except for those who die naturally or are executed in prison, 95 % of all state prisoners will eventually leave prison (Petersilia 2003). Estimates from the Department of Justice show that nearly one-half of all state inmates will be released within 1 year and three-quarters will be released within 5 years (U.S. Government Accountability Office 2001). Parolees represent 11 % of the 7.2 million people “under correctional control” (incarcerated or on community supervision) (Glaze and Bonczar 2010). Regardless of whether ex-prisoners are on formal parole supervision, they all return home forever changed, often facing isolation, stigma, and a narrowed array of life chances.
Today’s parole population is mostly male (88 %), although the number of females has risen steadily over the past decade. The average parolee is in his or her mid-thirties, with a median age of 34. For both males and females, most parolees are members of racial or ethnic minorities (37 % are black and 19 % are Hispanic or Latino) (Glaze and Bonczar 2008). The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 37 % of all adults on parole in 2007 were convicted of drug crimes (Glaze and Bonczar 2008). Many states are reconsidering the harsh drug laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s, rolling back mandatory sentences and accelerating releases for some drug offenders. The anticipated accelerated pace of drug-involved prison releases will strain parole and community resources even further.
Most of those released from prison today have serious social and medical problems. More than three-fourths of all prisoners have a history of substance abuse (one-fourth have histories of injection drug use), and one in six suffers from mental illness (Ditton 1999). Yet less than a third of exiting prisoners have received substance abuse or mental health treatment while in prison. And while some states have recently provided more funding for prison drug treatment, the dramatic increase in the prison population has resulted in a decline in the percentage of state prisoners participating in such programs that have been declining, from 25 % in the 1990s to about 10 % in 2001 (Lynch and Sabol 2001).
A significant share of the prison population also lives with an infectious disease. Two to three percent of state prisoners are HIV positive or have AIDS, a rate five times higher than that of the US population (Hammett et al. 2002). According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 25 % of all individuals living with HIV or AIDS in the United States had been released from a prison or jail that year (National Commission on Correctional Health Care 2002). This proportion may continue to increase as more drug offenders, many of whom engage in intravenous drug use, share needles, or trade sex for drugs, are released from incarceration. Prisoners with health problems may have a more difficult reentry process than others, as they are additionally confronted with the tasks of managing their health problems, obtaining health care, and keeping up with medications or appointments.
Few inmates have marketable skills or sufficient literacy to become gainfully employed at release. A third of all US prisoners were unemployed at their most recent arrest, and just 60 % of inmates have a GED or high school diploma (compared to 85 % of the US adult population). The National Adult Literacy Survey established that 11 % of inmates, compared with 3 % of the general population, have a learning disability and 3 % are mentally retarded (National Center for Education Statistics 1994). Again, despite evidence that inmates’ literacy and job readiness has declined, fewer inmates are participating in prison education or vocational programs. Just over 25 % of all those released from prison in 2001 had participated in vocational training programs, and about a third of exiting prisoners will have participated in education programs – both figures down from the previous decade (Lynch and Sabol 2001).
In 2007, the nation spent about $47 billion in state general funds on corrections (which was 7 % of all state general fund spending), yet spending on treatment equaled just 6 % of the annual cost of housing a prisoner (Pew Center on the States 2009). The need for services for substance-abuse treatment and educational programming in prison has never been greater, but the percentage of prisoners receiving these services has declined. More punitive attitudes, combined with diminishing rehabilitation programs, mean that more inmates spend their prison time “idle.” Ironically, as inmate needs have increased and inprison programs decreased, parole supervision and community services have also decreased for most returning prisoners.
Current Issues And Controversies
The Decline Of Rehabilitation And Discretionary Parole Release
The pillars of the American corrections systems – indeterminate sentencing coupled with parole release, for the purposes of offender rehabilitation – collapsed during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Attacks on indeterminate sentencing and parole release centered on three major criticisms. First, there was little scientific evidence that parole release and supervision reduced subsequent recidivism. Robert Martinson and his colleagues published the now-famous review of the effectiveness of correctional treatment and concluded, “With few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism” (1974, p. 25). Of the 289 studies they reviewed, just 25 (9 %) pertained to parole, and yet Martinson’s summary was interpreted to mean that parole supervision (and all rehabilitation programs) did not work. Once rehabilitation could not be legitimated by science, there was nothing to support the “readiness for release” idea and, therefore, no role for parole boards or indeterminate sentencing.
Second, parole and indeterminate sentencing were challenged on moral grounds as unjust and inhumane, especially when imposed on unwilling participants. Research at the time showed there was little relationship between in-prison behaviors, participation in rehabilitation programs, and post-release recidivism. If that were true, then why base release dates on in-prison performance? Prisoners too argued that not knowing their release dates held them in “suspended animation” and contributed one more pain of imprisonment.
Third, indeterminate sentencing permitted parole authorities to use a great deal of uncontrolled discretion in release decisions, and these decisions often were inconsistent and discriminatory. Since parole boards had a great deal of autonomy and their decisions were not subject to outside scrutiny, critics argued that it was a hidden system of discretionary decision making that led to race and class bias in release decisions.
It seemed as if no one liked indeterminate sentencing and parole in the early 1980s, and the time was ripe for change. Crime control advocates denounced parole supervision as being largely nominal and ineffective; social welfare advocates decried the lack of meaningful and useful rehabilitation programs. A political coalition resulted, and soon incapacitation and “just deserts” replaced rehabilitation as the primary goal of American prisons.
With that changed focus, indeterminate sentencing and parole release came under serious attack, and calls for “abolishing parole” were heard in state after state. In 1975, Maine became the first state to eliminate parole. The following year, California and Indiana established determinate sentencing and abolished discretionary parole release. By 2002, 16 states had abolished discretionary parole release for nearly all offenders. In 19 other states, parole authorities had discretion over a small and decreasing number of parole-eligible inmates. Likewise, at the federal level, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 created the US Sentencing Commission and phased out discretionary parole for most federal prisoners in 1997 (Petersilia 2003).
Proponents hoped that determinate sentencing with mandatory parole would make sentencing more consistent across offenders and offenses – and it has (Marvell and Moody 1996). It was also thought that abolishing parole would lengthen the time inmates spent behind bars. After all, parole release was widely regarded as letting them out early. Solomon et al. (2005) did find that prisoners released to post-prison supervision served nearly a year less than those released without supervision (mandatorily), but it is not clear whether the longer prison terms served were the result of discretionary parole systems or the nature of the inmate’s crime or institutional misconduct.
Opponents of parole also assert that there is no evidence that placing offenders on parole supervision helps reduce their recidivism rates. A controversial study by the Urban Institute “Does Parole Supervision Work?” found no difference in the rearrest rates of offenders released from prison with and without parole supervision. After statistically controlling for the offenders’ demographic characteristics and criminal histories, the researchers found that 61 % of mandatory parolees (those without supervision) were rearrested, compared with 57 % of discretionary (with supervision) parole releasees. Solomon et al. (2005, p. 37) concluded that “Parole has not contributed substantially to reduced recidivism and increased public safety.” This is not to say that parole supervision could not reduce recidivism, only that at the aggregate level in which it was studied, there was no evidence that it reduced rearrests.
Rehabilitation Programs, The Cost Of Parole Supervision, And Civil Disabilities
Although 70 % of all persons under correctional control are on probation or parole, nearly nine out of ten correctional dollars goes to funding prisons. Nationally, the 2008 average annual cost of a year in prison was $29,000. In contrast, the average annual cost of parole supervision was $2,750. In California, with the nation’s largest prison and parole population, the figures are dramatic: for every dollar California spends on prisons, it spent 15 cents on parole (Pew Center on the States 2009). Parole officers complain of growing paperwork and diminishing resources devoted to treatment of parolees. Some parolees do not participate in any parole programming at all. It is no wonder that recidivism rates are so high. In a sense, we get what we pay for, and we have never chosen to invest sufficiently in parole or reentry programs.
In addition to few treatment resources, parolees are also subject to a number of statutory restrictions or “civil disabilities” when they return home. Many restrictions are statutory, stemming from a common-law tradition that people who are incarcerated are “civilly dead” and have lost all civil rights (Travis 2005). Their criminal record may preclude them from voting or retaining their parental rights and be grounds for divorce, and they may be barred from serving on a jury, holding public office, and owning firearms. In 11 states in 2004, ex-prisoners were permanently denied the right to vote (Manza and Uggen 2006). Employers are also increasingly forbidden from hiring parolees for certain jobs and are mandated to perform background checks for many others. The most common types of jobs with legal prohibitions against parolees are in the fields of childcare, education, security, nursing, and home health care – exactly the types of jobs that are expanding. Since the mid-1980s, the number of barred occupations has increased dramatically.
Even if a parolee is not legally barred from a particular job, research shows that ex-offenders face bleak prospects in the labor market, with the mark of a criminal record representing an important barrier to finding work (Pager 2003). More than 60 % of employers claim that they would not knowingly hire an applicant with a criminal back ground (Holzer et al. 2002). Overcoming the barriers that ex-offenders face in finding a job is critical to successful reintegration, since employment helps ex-prisoners be productive, take care of their families, develop valuable life skills, and strengthen their self-esteem and social connectedness. Research has also empirically established a positive link between job stability and reduced criminal offending. Lipsey’s (1995) metaanalysis of nearly 400 studies found that the single most effective factor in reducing re-offending rates was employment.
Revolving Door Justice: Inmates Release, Recidivism, And Prison Return
Staying out of prison is a lot harder than getting out. The landmark BJS study of prisoners released in 15 states in 1994 found that fully two-thirds (67 %) were rearrested and just over one-half (52 %) were back in prison, serving time for a new prison sentence or for a technical violation of their release, within 3 years (Langan and Levin 2002). The “two-thirds rearrest rate” after 3 years has been documented in the United States for about 35 years, ever since Daniel Glaser conducted his classic follow-up study of prisoners in The Effectiveness of a Prison and Parole System (1969). The Langan and Levin (2002) study also found that certain characteristics were associated with parole failure: black parolees had higher rearrest rates, as did males in general, those with fewer prior arrests, those incarcerated for property offenses, and those who were younger at release (under 25). The failure rate for prisoners who had been previously released on parole and were now being re-released was much higher (64 %) than for prisoners being released to parole for the first time (21 %) (Travis and Lawrence 2002).
Rosenfeld et al. (2005), using data from the BJS recidivism study, calculated arrest probabilities by month for each of the 36 months after release. They adjusted the probability of arrest by subtracting out persons who were in jail, in prison, or dead during the month and therefore not eligible for arrest. Their results show that the probability of arrest declines with months out of prison and that the probability of arrest during the first month out of prison is roughly double than that during the fifteenth month. Arrest probabilities also differ by type of crime: prison releasees arrested on property or drug offenses are more likely to be arrested early in the post-release period than those arrested for violent offenses.
Clearly, the first few months after prison release represent high crime risks, but Binswanger et al. (2007) also found that death rates for new prison releases – within the first days and weeks – are much higher than for matched demographic groups in the general population. The higher prisoner-release death rates (12 times the average for the general population) were caused by high rates of homicide and drug overdoses. These results have led to calls to front-load parole services and surveillance so as to reduce these and other negative outcomes during the first 6 months after release (National Research Council 2008).
While individual recidivism studies have always shown high failure rates, until recently there was little attention paid to the overall amount of crime returning prisoners were responsible for. Rosenfeld et al. (2005) reanalyzed the BJS data and estimated that parolees accounted for 10–15 % of all violent, property, and drug arrests between 1994 and 1997 and the share of total arrests attributable to released prisoners grew as general crime rates declined during the 1990s. In 1994 the arrests of prisoners released in the previous 3 years accounted for 13 % of all arrests. By 2001 that figure had increased to more than 20 %. If former prisoners are accounting for nearly one-fifth of all the nation’s arrests, then investing in prisoner reentry is unquestionably a matter of public safety. Such evidence has encouraged law enforcement organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the National District Attorneys Association to develop policies, training, and other tools that support effective prisoner reentry (La Vigne et al. 2006).
Parole Violators And Their Impact On Prison Populations
The BJS reports that about 50 % of released prisoners will be returned to prison in the 3 years following release – and most of them will eventually be re-released, and the revolving door process will continually be repeated. Prisoners refer to it as “doing a life term on the installment plan.” The constant churning of parolees in and out of incarceration is a major contributor to the growing US population. As a percentage of all admissions to state prisons, parole violators more than doubled from 17 % in 1980 to nearly 35% in 2006 (Sabol and Couture 2008).
In these budget-strapped times, many question the public safety benefits of violating parolees for technical violations, such as missing a meeting with a parole agent, being out after a curfew time, and, increasingly, failing a drug test. Processing admissions of parole violators takes as much time and costs as much money as processing admissions of new convictions and for offenders who often will be in prison for only a few months. Many advocates argue that technical violations should not result in a return to prison and can be handled in the community with less-drastic intermediate sanctions. The contrary view is that some violations, even of a procedural nature, are significant signs that a parolee is not respecting the terms of the parole contract and should suffer consequences. This can also be a sign that even if the current violation is minor, if left unattended, it might lead to more serious ones. Several states have begun to use parole violation decision-making instruments to respond systematically to violations. The goal of such instruments is to differentiate technical violations and the response to them by the severity and risk posed by the offender, ultimately decreasing prison admissions for technical violations and reducing disparities in parole decision making.
Responding appropriately to parolee recidivism is one way to manage correctional resources better, but preventing parolees from failing in the first place is a more proactive strategy. But that begs the all-important question of whether we can implement reentry programs to increase the odds of success.
No one believes that the current parole and reentry system is working, but the $64,000 question is, can we do better? Can we improve the outcomes for people returning from prison so that they are less likely to be rearrested? Fortunately, the last decade has seen an explosion of interest in parole and prisoner reentry, and the “what works?” literature has improved. After extensively reviewing all of the literature, the National Research Council (2008, p. 82) concluded, “‘Nothing works’ is no longer a defensible conclusion from assessment of program effects on re-entry outcomes.”
What Works In Reentry Programming?
Using a variety of techniques, researchers have developed a list of principles of effective intervention and found that programs adhering to these principles significantly reduced recidivism, sometimes by as much as 30 % (Andrews and
Bonta 2006; Lowenkamp et al. 2006). Petersilia (2004) summarized these principles and their applicability to reentry programs:
- Treatment services should be behavioral in nature; interventions should employ the cognitive behavioral and social learning techniques of modeling.
- Reinforcements in the program should be largely positive, not negative.
- Services should be intensive, lasting 3–12 months (depending on need), and occupy 40–70 % of the offender’s time during the course of the program.
- Treatment interventions should be used primarily with higher-risk offenders, targeting their criminogenic needs (dynamic risk factors for change).
- The best strategy for discerning offender risk level is to rely on actuarial-based assessment instruments.
- Conducting interventions in the community as opposed to an institutional setting will increase treatment effectiveness.
- In terms of staffing, there is a need to match styles and modes of treatment service to the learning styles of the offender (specific responsivity).
It is impossible to know the extent to which these evidence-based principles are being used in current parole and reentry programs. Interestin prisoner reentry over the last decade has fueled the development of hundreds of programs across the United States. Some reentry programs are small and administered by community-and faith-based organizations, whereas other programs are large statewide initiatives, often administered by the state’s corrections department. Some programs start inside the prison and continue into the community, whereas others begin when the prisoner has returned home. Some programs are residential, others involve day reporting, and still others involve a meeting every month or two. They rely on existing and volunteer community treatment services, primarily Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. The academic “what works” literature barely touches these programs, but these programs are delivering vital services and should not be dismissed, as they are the foot soldiers of the reentry movement.
Many other reentry programs are part of federally funded reentry initiatives implemented in recent years. The “what works” literature is influencing their design and evaluations. The largest effort to implement evidence-based reentry principles systematically is the federal government’s Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI). In 2003, 69 agencies representing all 50 states received more than $110 million in federal funds to develop programs to improve the outcomes of serious and violent prisoners coming home (Lattimore et al. 2005). The federal government’s SVORI goals were to improve a variety of outcomes, including family relationships, work, health, community integration, housing, and reduced crime. Programs were also encouraged to focus specifically on serious and violent offenders, or both. Most programs used a formal risk assessment tool to identify risks and needs, as recommended in the “what works” literature. Early outcome results appear promising. SVORI participants were more likely to receive services and participate in needed programs, and SVORI participants are doing better across a wide range of outcomes. Recidivism outcomes are not yet reported, but other outcomes, including housing, employment, mental health, and substance abuse, have improved. As Lattimore and Visher (2009) reported to Congress, “In most cases, the difference in outcomes between those participating in SVORI programs and the comparison subjects indicates that SVORI program participation resulted in an improvement in outcomes.” It is important to note that most SVORI participants were repeat serious offenders (the males had an average of 13 prior arrests), so that even relatively small reductions in recidivism rates may be quite cost-beneficial.
In sum, it is possible to reduce offender recidivism in a cost-effective manner. The answer lies in investing in reentry programs that incorporate “what works” principles, targeting those programs on specific offenders who can most benefit, and continually evaluating and revising program models as the science accumulates.
Conclusions And Future Research
Parole and prisoner reentry issues have captured the nation’s attention, and the US parole system is entering another chapter in its history. Attacks on parole and community-based programs have virtually disappeared and have been replaced with calls for investing more, not less, in parole and prisoner reentry. Where there was little scholarly attention paid to parole just 10 years ago, the volume and visibility of work around parole and prisoner reentry issues has grown to such an extent that it is now commonly referred to as a full-fledged movement (Petersilia 2009). And the reentry momentum is likely to continue. Voters are tiring of our dependence on mass incarceration as a response to crime and more willing to embrace a more balanced system of punishment.
For all that has been learned about parole and reentry in recent years, a number of important research questions remain. We now know a good deal about the needs of returning prisoners and have some evidence about the services they receive. However, much less research exists on the effectiveness of particular approaches to delivering services, and only a small number of studies have used rigorous scientific methods to test promising practices. The highest priority for future research is more credible program evaluations. To date, no studies have analyzed the differences among low-, medium-, and high-risk offenders using an experimental design. A recent panel of the National Research Council (2008, p. 82) concluded that while there is a great deal of experiential and practitioner knowledge with regard to the apparent efficacy of reentry programs, “the challenge now is to subject these promising practices to rigorously designed evaluations.” Rigorous program evaluations should accompany every significant reentry initiative, and outcomes for these studies should focus not solely on recidivism but also on other behavioral outcomes, such as sobriety, stability in housing and employment, and attachment to families and communities. Our studies must also disaggregate the characteristics of the offender population so that we can design better programs for specialized populations, such as women, the elderly, sex offenders, or the mentally ill. A higher proportion of parolees in the future are likely to be composed of one of these distinct population groups, and we know very little about how to deliver services to meet their specific needs.
We also need a better understanding of how neighborhood characteristics affect the reintegration of offenders. Hipp et al. (2010) recently reported that the presence of more social service providers nearby (within two miles) led to lower recidivism rates and that this protective effect was particularly strong for African American and Latino parolees. They also found that parolees living in neighborhoods with higher levels of concentrated disadvantage experienced greater rates of recidivism, even after taking into account the individual characteristics of these parolees. This study highlights the importance of social context for successful reintegration. Research must move beyond simple statistical models that attempt to explain parolees’ return to prison solely as a function of the parolees’ background and behavior, since the characteristics of their agent, supervising agency, and community may be significant predictors as well.
Finally, researchers must study successful parolees in order to uncover the factors that encourage offenders to shift from formal social controls to informal social controls. Ultimately, parolees who make it shift from being accountable to programs and criminal justice agencies (e.g., police, parole) to being accountable to more informal social controls (e.g., families, neighbors). Ideally, formal criminal justice sanctions should act as “presses” to increase social bonds to law-abiding family members and conventional institutions. Ethnographic studies can identify how to promote positive social bonds between ex-convicts and community members.
We are now witnessing the start of a new ideological pendulum shift in US punishment policy. A declining economy that is pressuring states to reduce incarceration, combined with a growing body of evidence identifying effective reentry programs, has created a window of opportunity for change. Parole and prisoner reentry may well serve as a major conceptual framework for reorganizing criminal justice policy in the twenty-first century.
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