Early release procedures will likely become increasingly necessary during a time of fiscal uncertainty in corrections. To date, however, few empirical evaluations exist in the literature to guide correctional administrators in making these potentially unpopular decisions. The failure to appreciate fully the consequences of early release for the criminal justice system (as well as for the general public) could lead to unintended consequences in the form of increased costs and a potential decrease in public safety. The current study seeks to build on the limited information available by evaluating the effectiveness of releasing offenders early in Montana in an attempt to mitigate a budget deficit. The results indicate that offenders released early from a prison setting were more likely to recidivate (and to do so more quickly) than a matched group of offenders experiencing a traditional parole release from prison. Offenders released early from a community setting were somewhat less likely to recidivate than a matched group of offenders experiencing a traditional parole release from the community. Based on these findings, we assess three plausible explanations for our results:
- 1A Reduced Deterrent Effect. A possible explanation for the relationship between early release and recidivism identifies a reduction in sentence length as leading to a weakened deterrent effect of criminal justice sanctions. Yet a sizeable body of literature questions the empirical support of deterrence theory in general, and this knowledge coincides with research that suggests that longer sentences produce little gain in terms of reduced recidivism from an incapacitation and a deterrence perspective. In our results, the early releasees from a community setting were less likely to recidivate than their traditional release from community counterparts—a finding that also is at odds with a reduced deterrent effect. Based on these considerations, we conclude that a reduced deterrent effect is unlikely to be responsible for the increased likelihood of recidivism for the early release from prison group.
- 2A Shift in Burden Effect. A second explanation is that the early release of inmates can shift the burden of overcrowding unintentionally from an institutional setting to a community supervision setting. The unscheduled early release of offenders likely increases the caseloads of parole officers and may affect their overall job performance. In our results, we cannot determine definitively that adjustments were occurring without qualitative information from parole officers. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that the label of being an early release may have influenced the differences in technical violations across the four groups—specifically for those released early from prison, which may invoke a different response than those released early who were already in the community. Thus, whereas early release procedures may not influence recidivism rates directly through the commission of new criminal acts or violations of parole by those released early, it is possible that recidivism rates may increase because of adjustments made by parole officers. Based on these considerations, we conclude that a shift in burden effect remains a plausible explanation for our findings regarding the increased likelihood of recidivism by the early release from prison group.
- 3A Failure to Prepare for Reentry Effect. A final consideration is that the early release of inmates from an institutional setting leaves them unprepared to successfully reintegrate back into society. Offenders released today are fundamentally different as compared to those in years past in that they have less programming available to them in prison and have fewer connections with community-based structures. The early release of inmates from prison is likely the epitome of instances in which prisoners are unaware of their discharge date and it is also likely that these offenders were thrust back into society with little time to prepare for successful reintegration. Our findings indicate that the traditional parole from prison group—which in Montana requires that the offender demonstrate a detailed parole plan that includes housing and employment expectations—had the lowest overall recidivism rate. In addition, the early release group from the community setting performed similarly to the traditional release group from the community setting (rather than follow the pattern of the early release from prison group). This finding may indicate a smoother transition into society for these early releases because of a better plan for reentry via placement in the community. Based on these considerations, we conclude that a failure to prepare for reentry effect is a likely explanation for the relationships observed between early release and recidivism.
The recent Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata requires California to release approximately 37,000 inmates early due to constitutional deficiencies in healthcare delivery as a result of overcrowding. The situation in California is not unlike other state correctional systems, and underbudgeting and overcrowding will create the need for sensible polices to reduce correctional populations quickly without an increased risk to public safety. The lessons learned from Montana begin with the idea that early release from prison specifically produces several unforeseen consequences beyond that of reducing correctional populations. Yet our research should not be taken to indicate a requirement for offenders necessarily to serve the totality of their sentences. Nor does it advance the idea that an increase in incarceration and its severity would increase public safety. What we argue is that short-term and long-term processes designed to alleviate correctional strain need to be viewed from a reintegration perspective. To that end, we offer three broad and interrelated implications based on the findings of the current analyses:
- 1Early Release as a Short-term Fix. It would be unwise to suggest that early release procedures should be done away with entirely. Immediate pressures on the U.S. correctional system may produce disastrous consequences for the safety of inmates and correctional officers if they are not ameliorated quickly. Furthermore, budget deficits have left administrators with few alternatives. In the most general sense, however, we join previous scholars in asserting that early release mechanisms should be conceived of as only a short-term remedy for a long-term problem. These approaches should be combined with better inmate projections based on demographics in addition to emergency management planning. Perhaps most importantly, administrators should more fully examine the relationships between prison (re)admissions and effective parole and reentry policies. Short-term emergency release procedures can be successful, but our research indicates that more attention needs to be paid to the transition process from both a supervision and a reintegration perspective.
- 2Reconsider the Nature of Parole. The current analysis has implications for parole as a discretionary release mechanism as well as a form of postrelease supervision for ex-offenders. First, our findings regarding the successfulness of reintegration for the traditional parole from prison group support the contention that success on parole is increasing in some jurisdictions and suggest that an increase in parole grant rates may do little to increase the rates of criminal behavior (provided that a plan of managed reentry is a requirement of the parole application process). Second, nearly all the ex-offenders (early and traditional released) within the current study were returned for technical violations of their parole; yet significant differences existed across the groups that resulted in early release from prison offenders being more likely to return to custody. Although the commission of a new crime clearly necessitates a strong formal response, relatively minor violations (e.g., failure to report and failed urinalysis) could be handled less punitively. Instead, a system of graduated sanctions could be created that resorts to reincarceration as a last option for repeat violators. Such an approach is likely to reduce correctional populations as well as the costs associated with reincarcerating ex-offenders.
- 3Prepare for Reentry. Instead of conceptualizing parole as an extended sentence of supervision for offenders, it could be conceived of as a managed reentry mechanism with an explicit focus on successful reintegration. Reentry should begin within prison walls through specific planning for each offender. After discharge, a system of managed reentry could “seize the moment of release” by providing ex-offenders with the support needed to perform simple but necessary tasks such as obtaining an identification card. The system should be front loaded, with the bulk of services concentrated within the first 6 months of release and should provide offenders with the opportunity to accomplish several requirements (e.g., housing, employment) in one location. Additionally, the opportunity for individuals to “graduate” from parole early would assure that resources were reserved for the ex-offenders most vulnerable for a return to crime. Each of these recommendations recognizes that early release policies will likely affect the opportunities of ex-offenders to make good while producing the added benefit of reducing the burden placed on parole officers.
Early release procedures will undoubtedly become more commonplace in corrections as a means to overcome budget shortfalls and prison crowding. It is therefore necessary that precautions be taken to ensure that offenders are fully prepared to succeed after reentry into society. A full appreciation for the complexities of early release from a reintegration perspective could indeed serve to save money and correctional space while increasing public safety through the reduction of future offenses. It also could lead to additional benefits such as decreases in child abuse, family violence, and community disorganization, and it would create an opportunity to save considerable time and money to treat social ills through the offender population.