Research Report Prisoner Reentry in Perspective
James P. Lynch, William J. Sabol
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Executive Summary

The massive increase in incarceration in the United States that occurred during the past 20 years has now turned public attention toward the consequences of releasing large numbers of prisoners back into society. Prisoner reentry has raised questions about public safety, about how corrections systems should manage the volume of releases, and about how communities can absorb and reintegrate the returning prisoners. Very little is known about these matters, yet speculation is rife that the volume of returning prisoners will result in more crime and in more challenges for supervision, and that it will reduce the capacity of communities to absorb ex-prisoners.

In this report, data are presented on changes in characteristics of persons released from prison and of persons on parole, but these measures beg the question of whether reentry involves only those recently released, those under supervision, or the entire volume of persons who have previously been in prison. If the latter group is considered, then the scope of reentry expands to include the several million people who have spent time in prison.

The limited data reviewed herein identify several of the complexities associated with prisoner reentry. For example, the volume of offenders released from prison increased dramatically from 1980 to 2000, from about 170,000 to 585,000, but the rate of increase has slowed during the 1990s while the prison population continued to expand. This prison expansion occurred largely through the increase in length of stay in prison. But, as the data in this report show, longer stays in prison are associated with declining frequency of contact with family members, and contact with family members is believed to facilitate reintegration into the community. Moreover, participation in programs in prison decreased during this prison expansion, so a larger number of released prisoners reenter society not having participated in educational, vocational, or pre-release programs.

The increase in the volume of released offenders raises concerns about public safety. Yet, throughout the 1990s, as the annual number of offenders released from prison increased, the aggregate crime rate actually decreased. Public safety concerns are also raised in relation to the increasing number of offenders released from prison with no conditions of supervision, or "unconditionally." On the one hand, the absence of a parole officer can be a detriment to reentry, as parole officers can offer minimal help to ex-prisoners in locating resources. On the other hand, little is known about the actual experiences of offenders released unconditionally. And while concerns are raised that unconditional releases may be among the most serious offenders, data from some states suggest that they return to prison at lower rates than those released with supervision.

The experiences with returning prisoners over the past decade suggest further that there has been an increase in the number who "churn" or recycle through prison and parole. Comparatively few (20 percent) of those who have had a previous experience on parole successfully complete their subsequent term of parole. By contrast, the majority of offenders (75 percent) who are released onto parole for the first time do successfully complete parole. As first and subsequent discharges from parole each account for about half of those completing parole, these parole outcomes suggest that the pool of "churners" is increasing more rapidly than it is being retired.

The number of persons who enter prison for the first time in their life has increased in recent years. Many, perhaps most, do not return to prison. All of this suggests that these reentry populations are diverse and that planning for reentry requires addressing the complexities of the population. Recent experiences with returning prisoners suggest that some may require more supervision than others and that some may require none.

From the community perspective, released prisoners are concentrated in a few large states and, within these states, are increasingly concentrated in the "core counties" that contain the central cities of metropolitan areas. Limited data on releases into cities further suggest that, within cities, releases are concentrated within a comparatively few areas or communities. However, these limited data also raise questions about the assumption that the concentrations are limited to the poorest neighborhoods in central cities. Data from Cleveland suggest that a number of the areas with high incarceration (and eventually release) rates are located in or near working-class neighborhoods. Such a geographic dispersion of incarceration and releases is consistent with the thesis about the spread of drug trafficking throughout metropolitan areas. And, such a geographic dispersion also raises questions about the impacts of incarceration and reentry on these more stable neighborhoods. If, as research shows, incarceration is related to lower levels of employment and earnings, then the removal and return of large volumes of exprisoners to working-class communities can have potentially negative consequences for these communities.

In sum, this paper shows that the size of the returning prisoner and parole populations has increased, but that funding for supervision has not kept pace. It shows that there have been marginal changes in the composition of the population of reentering inmates that can make reentry more difficult than it has been, but at the same time, we have yet to observe in the aggregate data many of the adverse consequences predicted. So while inmates reentering society now are more likely (1) to have failed at parole previously; (2) not to have participated in educational and vocational programs in prison; and (3) to have served longer sentences, which attenuates ties to families, it may also be the case that large numbers of persons who enter prison for the first time in their lives do not return to prison. And, while returns from prison are concentrated in a comparatively small number of urban communities, these communities may be fairly diverse and include both areas of concentrated poverty as well as working-class communities. Finally, within the metropolitan areas to which ex-prisoners are returning, access to jobs and competition with welfare leavers for skill-appropriate jobs may impose further constraints on the capacity of communities to reintegrate ex-prisoners.

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Corrections Reentry
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center