NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

More Prisoners Let Loose Without Parole

January 30, 2003

The U.S. prison population increased four-fold over the past 20 years. The evidence indicates that the prison boom was responsible for about a quarter of the decline in crime in the 1990s. However, more prisoners are let loose every day than ever before.

And because of their increased numbers, the diversion of resources to prison-building and get-tough sentencing and parole policies, fewer ex-inmates worked, or received training or psychological and substance abuse counseling while imprisoned.

  • Every day some 1,600 people will leave state and federal prisons.
  • Only about 13 percent will have participated in any kind of pre-release program to prepare them for life outside.
  • An increasing proportion served their maximum time, and so will be freed unconditionally rather than paroled -- in 1977 only four percent of prisoners served their maximum sentence; by 1999, 18 percent did.

The parole system now emphasizes surveillance more than time-consuming personal supervision. As a result, many more parolees are charged with technical violations that are not crimes.

  • In the 1970s the average parole officer oversaw 45 ex-offenders, according to the Urban Institute, compared to about 70 today.
  • In 1980, parole violators accounted for 18 percent of prison admissions; today they account for a third, and most of them have been sent back on technical grounds.
  • California, which sends more parole violators back to prison than any other state, spends some $900 million a year to house them, for average stays of about five months.

Both prison and parole need reform if we are to reduce the recidivism rate of ex-inmates, which is about 40 percent.

Source: Margaret Talbot, "Catch and Release," Atlantic Monthly, January-February 2003.


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