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Does Parole Work?

Analyzing the Impact of Postprison Supervision on Rearrest Outcomes

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Document date: March 31, 2005
Released online: March 31, 2005

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.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).


The vast majority of prisoners in this country (about 80 percent) are released "conditionally," subject to a period of supervision in the community, often called "parole."1 Parole supervision is used as both a surveillance tool and a social service mechanism and ideally serves a deterrent role in preventing new crimes from occurring. Parole supervision can function as a surveillance tool by monitoring and sanctioning those who violate conditions of release, potentially averting more serious reoffending. Parole supervision can also act as a social service mechanism by using rules and incentives to engage ex-prisoners in positive activities, such as work and drug treatment, and to place ex-prisoners in programs that may help reentry transitions. While the focus of parole supervision has shifted more toward the surveillance function over the years,2 the number of people subject to it continues to grow. In 2003, over 774,000 adult men and women were under parole supervision in the United States,3 up from 197,000 in 1980.4

Despite its widespread use, remarkably little is known about whether parole supervision increases public safety or improves reentry transitions. Prior research indicates that fewer than half of parolees successfully complete their period of parole supervision without violating a condition of release or committing a new offense,5 and that two-thirds of all prisoners are rearrested within three years of release.6 To date, however, no national studies have compared the criminal activity of prisoners who are supervised after release to that of their unsupervised counterparts.

In this research brief, we use data from a Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) recidivism study7 (see "Data Sources and Limitations" sidebar) to compare prisoners released to parole supervision in 1994 with prisoners who completed their entire prison sentence and were released without any supervision or reporting requirements.8 Our goal is to assess, at an aggregate level, whether parole "works" at reducing recidivism among those who are supervised after release from state prison.

The report is organized around three key questions. First, do prisoners released with and without supervision differ with respect to demographics, incarceration characteristics, and criminal histories? Second, do prisoners released with and without supervision recidivate at different rates? And finally, if there are differences in recidivism outcomes between those released with and without supervision, when and for whom does supervision matter most?

Notes from this section of the report

1. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Reentry Trends in the U.S. Available at: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/reentry/releases.htm.

2. See Joan Petersilia. 2003. When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry. New York: Oxford University Press; Edward Rhine. 1997. "Probation and Parole Supervision: In Need of a New Narrative." Corrections Management Quarterly 1(2): 71-75.

3. Lauren Glaze and Sera Palla. 2004. "Probation and Parole in the United States, 2003." Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

4. Timothy Hughes, Doris Wilson, and Allen Beck. 2001. "Trends in State Parole, 1990-2000." Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/tsp00.pdf.

5. Ibid. The study also found that more than half of discretionary parolees successfully complete their term of supervision compared with one-third of mandatory parolees.

6. Patrick Langan and David Levin. 2002. "Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994." Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

7. Ibid.


Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).



Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice


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