WASHINGTON, D.C., March 31, 2005Parole, a cornerstone of the criminal justice system, does little to dampen rearrest rates, concludes the first multistate study comparing the criminal activity of prisoners who are supervised after release with that of their unsupervised counterparts.
Mandatory parolees, the largest share of released prisoners (39 percent in 2000), fare no better under supervision than similar prisoners released without oversight by a parole officer. In fact, say researchers from the nonpartisan Urban Institute, in some cases they are more likely to be rearrested. Under mandatory parole, a prisoner who has served his or her original sentence, less credit for good behavior, finishes the balance of the sentence under supervision in the community.
Discretionary parolees (24 percent of all released prisoners), in contrast, are screened by a parole board for early release. They are somewhat less likely to be rearrested than unconditional releasees, says the study, "Does Parole Work? Analyzing the Impact of Postprison Supervision on Rearrest Outcomes." However, the difference narrows (to 4 percentage points) when comparing former prisoners with similar personal characteristics and criminal histories.
Unconditional release (20 percent of the total) means that prisoners have served their full sentences and must be released without any conditions, community supervision, or reporting requirements.
In the two years after release, 62 percent of unconditional releasees and 61 percent of mandatory parolees were rearrested at least once, while the rate was 54 percent for discretionary parolees. When the researchers compared similar individuals, rearrest outcomes for mandatory parolees and unconditional releasees were identical at 61 percent, versus 57 percent for discretionary parolees. This difference is surprisingly small since discretionary parolees are generally considered more likely to succeed because they have met a parole board's criteria regarding attitude, motivation, and preparedness.
"Despite these findings, few would suggest parole be abandoned altogether," says Amy Solomon, the study's lead researcher. "The challenge is to make it deliver on the promise of reducing crime, particularly among the high-risk individuals that supervision seems least likely to help."
Parole supervision is primarily a surveillance tool, but it can also connect ex-prisoners to social services. In 2003, over 774,000 men and women were on parole, up from 197,000 in 1980. The average time on parole in 1999 was 26 months.
The study, by Amy Solomon, Vera Kachnowski, and Avinash Bhati, uses federal Bureau of Justice Statistics data on prisoners released in 1994 in 14 states. This is the most recent detailed multistate information about prisoners and their postrelease histories.
Pockets of Opportunity
While there were small overall differences in recidivism based on supervision status, rates fell substantially when females, individuals with few prior arrests, public order offenders, and those imprisoned for violating a condition of an earlier release were supervised. Parolees in more than one of these categories, mostly relatively low-level offenders, exhibit even lower rearrest rates.
Females saw the biggest benefit from parole. The likelihood of rearrest for a female parolee (discretionary or mandatory) was 16 percentage points lower than for those released unconditionally. Among men and women with few prior arrests, the probability of rearrest for a discretionary parolee was 9 percentage points lower than for an unconditional releasee and 5 percentage points lower than for a mandatory parolee.
The public safety impact of supervision is minimal at best among the largest groups of released prisoners (about 80 percent of the sample)males involved in drug, property, or violent crimes. Only property offenders released to discretionary parole had lower rearrest rates than their unsupervised counterparts. Supervised violent offenders were no less likely to be rearrested than similar unconditional releasees. For drug offenders, mandatory supervised parole led to higher rearrest rates than unconditional release or discretionary parole, perhaps partly because of heightened surveillance, including frequent drug testing.
"A business with these kinds of results would look to reinvent itself," says Solomon. "While this study does not say parole can't work, it demonstrates that parole, as typically implemented, has largely failed to do what the American people want: prevent former prisoners from returning to crime."
The report notes that supervision is often minimal, with most parole officers managing large caseloads (an average of 70 parolees apiece) and typically meeting with individuals for about 15 minutes once or twice a month. In addition, many parole officers are located far from where parolees live and many don't understand their clients' neighborhoods.
As far as the study's data, the researchers point out that supervised parolees may have been watched more closely by law enforcement and parole officers, so their criminal activity may have been more likely to be detected than similar behavior by unconditional releasees.
"Does Parole Work? Analyzing the Impact of Postprison Supervision on Rearrest Outcomes," by Amy Solomon, Vera Kachnowski, and Avinash Bhati, was funded by the JEHT Foundation. It is available at http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=311156.
The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.