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A Fundamental Failure of American Prisons

A new study finds that more than one in five state inmates “maxes out” of their prison term and is released back into society without any supervision or support.

June 5, 2014


The most significant news of the week in criminal justice comes to use from the Pew Center, from its Public Safety Performance Project, which revealed Wednesday in a 22-page report a series of statistics that highlight one of the biggest failures of modern American incarceration: more than one in five state inmates “maxes out” of their prison term and is released back into society without any supervision or support.

The trend is getting worse, the folks at Pew tell us, and that means our prisons are churning out inmates who are more likely to become recidivists, which means that too many of these men and women will be back behind bars at a time when both state and federal authorities are trying to ease the scourge of mass incarceration (and prevent crime that it, eminently, preventable). Here’s the link to the full report and here is a summary that helps frame the issue:

Despite growing evidence and a broad consensus that the period immediately following release from prison is critical for preventing recidivism, a large and increasing number of offenders are maxing out—serving their entire sentences behind bars—and returning to their communities without supervision or support.

Between 1990 and 2012, the number of inmates who maxed out their sentences in prison grew 119 percent, from fewer than 50,000 to more than 100,000. These inmates do not have any legal conditions imposed on them, are not monitored by parole officers, and do not receive the assistance that can help them lead crime-free lives.

The increase in max-outs is largely the outcome of state policy choices over the past three decades that resulted in offenders serving higher proportions of their sentences behind bars. Yet new research suggests that for many offenders, shorter prison terms followed by supervision have the potential to reduce both recidivism and overall corrections costs.

What this means is that our prisons are heaping failure upon failure — and in so doing naturally making a dangerous situation worse. Not only are we incarcerating people for too long we also then are failing to prepare these inmates for a safe and productive reentry into society when we do finally consent to release them. It’s a waste of time, literally, to shun rehabilitative programs and policies that might aid these inmates upon reentry in favor of the harsh retributive policies that have swallowed up prison budgets in one jurisdiction after another.

"It is a harsh reality in many states that individuals are still released from prison with nothing more than $40 and a bus ticket,” the Brennan Center’s Lauren-Brooke Eisen told me Wednesday. Forty dollars actually is high. In Louisiana, for example, prison officials give exonerated prisoners a $20 debit card (it was $10 as recently as 2011) and no bus ticket upon their release from prison. In these circumstances what chance does a newly-released inmate have of getting a job, establishing healthy relationships, or simply functioning normally after decades of incarceration? The system, in other words, is set up to fail.

And these are only state figures. The federal Bureau of Prisons, with jurisdiction over 215,000 inmates, also does a terrible job of preparing inmates for their release. I’ve covered in just the past few years alone stories of mentally ill federal prisoners at the ADX-Florence “Supermax” facility in Colorado who are not getting proper care and treatment even as their release dates grow near. Each of these men represents a potential tragedy waiting to happen on the outside.

But the Pew Report also gives hope. In the past few years, lawmakers in Kansas, Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia (note more Red States than Blue ones on that list) have enacted reforms that ensure the newly-released inmates are supervised in a way that may aid their transition from prison to the world beyond. Some states get it, in other words, and realize how self-defeating it is to send prisoners out in the world knowing that they will fail upon their release. And then there is this reasoned passage in the conclusion of the Report:

Policymakers are increasingly recognizing the fragility of the successful resumption of community life after incarceration. States and the federal government are committing significant resources to improve reentry planning and strengthen community supervision in response to evidence of their effectiveness in protecting public safety by preventing recidivism.

Research shows that during the months immediately after their release from prison—a period consumed by finding employment and housing and reconnecting with family—offenders are at the greatest risk of committing new crimes. Recent evidence also shows that supervised parolees are less likely to engage in new criminal behavior than max-outs. By employing evidence-based supervision practices, including using graduated sanctions rather than revocations for technical violations, states can reduce costs and recidivism.

This sensible policy is not so complicated, not so partisan, not so “soft on crime” that it cannot be achieved. The roadmap, the path, already exists. All that is needed is for more public officials to follow it.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Fotolia)