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Beyond the Prison Gates

The State of Parole in America

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Document date: November 05, 2002
Released online: November 05, 2002

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

About the Authors

Jeremy Travis is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, affiliated with the Justice Policy Center. He is developing research and policy agendas on understanding crime in the community context, new concepts of the agencies of justice, sentencing and prisoner reentry, and international crime. Mr. Travis is co-chair of the Reentry Roundtable, a group of prominent academics, practitioners, service providers,and community leaders working to advance policies and innovations on prisoner reentry that reflect solid research. Before joining the Urban Institute, he directed the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, from 1994 to 2000. Prior to his service at NIJ, he was deputy commissioner for legal matters of the New York City Police Department, chair of the New York City Chancellor's Advisory Panel on School Safety, chief counsel to the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice of the House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, and special advisor to the mayor of New York City. Mr. Travis earned his JD, cum laude, from the New York University School of Law and also holds an MPA from the New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and a BA in American Studies, cum laude, from Yale College.

Sarah Lawrence is a research associate with the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where she works to link criminal justice research with policymakers and practitioners in the field. Her primary areas of interest include corrections, prisoner reentry, and community supervision. She currently is project director on an evaluation of a statewide reentry program in Pennsylvania and coprincipal investigator on an examination of the U.S. Census policy of counting prisoners in the county in which they are incarcerated. She is co-author of the articles "California's Parole Experiment" (California Journal, August2002) and "Prison-Based Programming: What It Can Do and Why It's Needed" (Corrections Today, April 2002). Previous project experience includes conducting focus groups, developing survey instruments, analyzing quantitative data, and performing cost-effectiveness analyses. Ms. Lawrence holds an MPP from the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a BS in Engineering from Cornell University.


Grateful acknowledgment is extended to the Open Society Institute for funding and supporting the creation of this report and to reviewers of earlier versions for their comments and suggestions that made this a better document, including James Austin, Institute on Crime, Justice, and Corrections, George Washington University; Michael Jacobson, associate professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Edward Rhine, chief, Office of Offender Reentry and Correctional Best Practices, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction; and Terry Dunworth, Vera Kachnowski, Daniel Mears, Amy Solomon, Michelle Waul, David Williams, and Laura Winterfield of the Urban Institute. The authors would also like to acknowledge the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Much of the analysis presented here is based on BJS data files and publications, and this report would not have been possible without them.

The Justice Policy Center (JPC) carries out nonpartisan research to inform the national dialogue on crime, justice, and community safety. For more information on JPC's reentry research, visit http://jpc.urban.org/reentry. To receive monthly email updates on JPC research, send an email to JPC@ui.urban.org.



Historical Context

The Methods of Prison Release
     Figure 1. The share of prison releases that are mandatory releases has doubled.
     Figure 2. The number of mandatory prison releases has experienced significant growth.
     Figure 3. Many states use a mixed system of parole board releases and mandatory releases

The Decision to Supervise after Release from Prison
     Figure 4. In recent decades, the share of prison releases toparole supervision has reached historically high levels.
     Figure 5. States vary significantly in the use of unconditional release.
     Figure 6. The states' use of unconditional release has decreased, increased, or remained stable.

Growth of the Parole Population
     Figure 7. Both the number of parolees and the rate on parole have increased significantly.
     Figure 8. Parole populations have decreased in some states and increased in others over the past 10 years.

Concentration of the Parole Population
     Figure 9. Parolees are disproportionately concentrated in a few states.
     Figure 10. California alone accounts for 42 percent of all parole violators returned to prison.

Comparing Imprisonment and Parole
     Figure 11. The ratio of prisoners to parolees varies across states, from a low of 0.45 to 1 to a high of 60 to 1.
     Figure 12. After years of parallel growth, state prison populations have diverged from parole populations.

Parole Success
     Figure 13. Parole success rates have been stable; first releases are more likely to be successful.
     Figure 14. State-level parole success rates range from a low of 19 percent to a high of 83 percent.

Parole Failures as Prison Admissions      Figure 15. The number of parole violators returned to prison has increased sevenfold.
     Figure 16. A growing share of prison admissions are parole violators.
     Figure 17. States vary significantly in the percentage of prison admissions who are parole violators.





The landscape of American sentencing policy has changed significantly over the past generation. States have enacted a wide variety of sentencing reforms, most of them designed to increase the use of imprisonment as a response to crime. Three-strikes laws have been passed to keep persistent offenders in prison for life. Mandatory minimums have been instituted to require imposition of a prison term for designated crimes. Truth-in-sentencing schemes have been embraced to ensure a long prison term for violent offenders.1

Over the same period, the states have made a number of changes in one of the cornerstones of American criminal justice policy, the institution commonly called parole. Some states have abolished the role of parole boards in deciding whether and when to release prisoners from custody.2 Others have cut back on parole supervision, releasing more prisoners directly to the community.3 Some states have aggressively enforced the conditions of parole, thereby discovering more parole violations and sending more parolees back to prison.4

During the same period, parole practices have changed significantly. Most parole agencies rely on drug testing as a way to determine whether a parolee has kept his promise to remain drug free.5 More states are allowing parole officers to carry weapons. A number of jurisdictions are requiring parolees to wear electronic bracelets to ascertain whether they abide by limitations on their movement. And the size of the parole population has grown substantially. In 1980, there were 220,000 individuals supervised by parole agencies across the country. In 2000 there were 725,000, an all-time high.

This report examines state parole systems in America today.6 Specifically, we examine three dimensions of the parole function. First, we document the extent to which parole boards make decisions to release inmates from prison. Second, we analyze the dimensions of the population under parole supervision. Third, we examine the issue of parole revocation, the decision to send a parolee back to prison. Where possible, we present our analysis at both the national and state levels.

This inquiry into the parole function is particularly timely. This year, more than 600,000 individuals will leave state and federal prisons — 1,600 a day, four times as many as left prison 25 years ago. The federal government recently announced the award of $100 million in grants to help states design new strategies to improve outcomes for prisoners returning home.7 A number of corrections administrators have embraced the challenge of engaging community groups in supervising the reentry process. Public health professionals, workforce development experts, housing providers, civil rights advocates, and police officials have all focused attention on the challenges and opportunities presented by record numbers of prisoners coming back into free society. They are engaging in similar questions: How is the prisoner prepared for release? How are family and community involved? Who supervises the prisoner when he or she gets out? What if there is no supervision? What should be the terms of a period of community supervision, and how long should that period last? What should happen to a parolee when he or she has violated a condition of supervision? Who should be returned to prison, why, and for how long?

The report reaches conclusions that we hope will provide the foundation for renewed attention to this critical function of the criminal justice system. We do not attempt to answer all the key questions about the parole process. Rather, this report presents a portrait of parole, a straightforward statistical depiction of the current state of three critical parole functions — the decision to release, the decision to supervise, and the decision to revoke. Using national and state-level data, we describe changes in those functions over time. We find that the role of parole boards in making release decisions has declined significantly. Now, only one in four individuals released from prison is released by a parole board. On the other hand, we find that the level of parole supervision has increased. Four out of five released prisoners are now placed on parole supervision. Finally, we find that the number of parole revocations has risen dramatically. Today, about onethird of all people admitted to prison are admitted for a parole violation.

Yet, underneath these national trends, our examination also reveals a substantial amount of variation in policy and practice among the 50 states. In fact, the state-level innovation is so extensive that we cannot conclude that the nation has a single approach to parole.8 Clearly, the states have embarked on a wide variety of experiments in their parole policies, with significant costs and benefits. These experiments offer an opportunity for research and inquiry that could inform the next generation of policy development in approaches to the period of time after prison, the time beyond the prison gates.


1. M. Tonry. 1999. "The Fragmentation of Sentencing and Corrections in America." Sentencing & Corrections, Issues for the 21st Century, no. 1. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, NCJ 175721. September.

2. P. Ditton and D. Wilson. 1999. "Truth in Sentencing in State Prisons." Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

3. J. Petersilia. 1999. "Parole and Prisoner Reentry in the United States." In Prisons, edited by M. Tonry and J. Petersilia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

4. J. Petersilia and S. Turner. 1993. "Intensive Probation and Parole." In Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, edited by M. Tonry, vol. 17. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

5. National Institute of Corrections. 1995. "Status Report on Parole, 1995: Results of an NIC Survey." Prepared by LIS, Inc. for the National Institute of Corrections. November.

6. Unless otherwise noted, data presented include only the 50 states and do not include the District of Columbia and federal systems.

7. Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative: "Going Home." 2002. Washington, D.C.: U.S Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. May.

8. M. Tonry. 1999. "Reconsidering Indeterminate and Structured Sentencing." Sentencing and Corrections: Issues for the 21st Century, no. 2. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice. September.

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