Addressing the deluge of early release prisoners into US communities


A recent ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States underscores the acute problems faced by many prison systems in the US. In this editorial we discuss problems encountered by parolees and potential solutions to reduce re-incarceration.

California communities are bracing for the onslaught of over 30 000 early release prisoners in the coming two years. This action is in response to the thousands of inmate claims filed to the courts citing poor medical care and conditions that are in direct violation of their constitutional rights. The current system, operating at 200% over capacity, is splitting at the seams and creating what is deemed a ‘criminogenic’ atmosphere by the Supreme Court [1]. State authorities are admitting they have limited resources to monitor so many entering into the parole system and, with state budget cuts in police services and nearly all other service agencies, communities are concerned that public safety will be forfeited. The early release of inmates from overcrowded prisons is not a problem solely encountered by California; states such as Florida, Ohio and Nebraska are taking similar action and more are likely to follow as nearly all of the 50 states report budget shortfalls.

As alarming as early release may seem, there may be potential benefits to parolees and communities. Specifically, it may be an opportunity for criminal justice systems to keep minor, non-violent offenders out of the prison system. A large proportion of minor offenders are incarcerated for drug related offenses and are the most likely reasonable candidates for early release programs. Some states have already enacted diversionary measures to combat overcrowding in prisons and decriminalize drug related offenses by allowing drug offenders to obtain treatment rather than jail time. However, these programs are not immune to economic downturns; notably the program enacted in California (prop 36) is in need of $228 million to stay operational. This warrants a call for more effective alternatives to costly alcohol and drug treatment programs.

Given that a large proportion of the non-violent offenders are incarcerated for drug related offenses, it is not surprising that two primary unmet needs of parolees are housing and substance abuse treatment services [2]. This is in keeping with parole department reports that a high percentage of parolees never finish supervision due to housing instability and homelessness [3], demonstrating that the current system for monitoring and aiding parolees does not provide adequate support.

A viable alternative to address both housing and substance misuse are Sober Living Houses (SLHs). SLHs are a low cost alternative to traditional treatment (i.e. inpatient or outpatient care) and provide a drug and alcohol free residence for persons working on recovery. These houses are located in residential communities and operate at about one third the expense of inpatient treatment programs. Emphasis is placed on peer support for recovery and 12-step group attendance. They are different from halfway houses in that there are no time restrictions and residents are expected to be involved in the SLH community and comply with house rules. Rules usually include going to 12-step group meetings, actively working on sobriety, participating in household chores and attending house meetings. Many of the SLHs are members of coalitions or associations that monitor health, safety, quality, and adherence to a social model program of recovery. A positive benefit of SLHs is that they provide a focus on community correction of behavior, with the opportunity for parolees to take an active role in the SLH and the surrounding community as well as take personal responsibility for maintaining a clean and sober lifestyle. This is juxtaposed to the (theoretical) sanctioning of drugs and alcohol in the prison system, an enforcement that does not allow the inmate to self-correct behavior or to have the opportunity to achieve civic identity within a community.

Longitudinal studies of SLH residents show drug, alcohol and psychiatric improvements maintained 18 months after entry into the SLH [4]. Additionally, parolees have equally successful substance use and psychiatric outcomes when compared with residents not involved in the criminal justice system [5]. These outcomes, coupled with research that opening and operating a clean and sober living house is substantially lower than jail or prison costs [6], show promise, but findings should be taken cautiously as parolees still show deficits including difficulty finding and keeping employment and higher re-arrest rates over time. While SLHs effectively address the needs of housing and recovery from drugs and alcohol valued by parolees, there is evidence that providing these unmet needs are not enough. Examination of parolees by Bucklen and Zajac [7] suggests that housing and employment are not the primary impediments often presumed to result in re-incarceration but that antisocial attitudes, poor problem-solving and poor coping skills are the underlying issues that ultimately result in re-entry into the criminal justice system. SLHs can provide a foundation for the process of helping parolees gain control over their lives as they re-enter society, but more attention to services that will help aid parolees to stay out of the criminal justice system, such as contingency management and counseling, are merited.

The Supreme Court is right. We need to provide proper care for criminal offenders but with greater care and attention to end re-incarceration.

Declaration of interests