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65 Fed. Probation 3 (2000-2001)
When Prisoners Return to Communities: Political, Economic, and Social Consequences

handle is hein.journals/fedpro65 and id is 5 raw text is: Juneu    ites 2001ial  3cn m c
an Soia Conequnce

Joan Petersilia, Ph.D.
University of California, Irvine

I N 1999, STATE prisons admitted about
591,000 prisoners and released almost the
same number-about 538,000. If federal pris-
oners and those released from secure juvenile
facilities are included, nearly 600,000 inmates
arrive on the doorsteps of communities
throughout the country each year.
Virtually no systematic, comprehensive at-
tention has been paid by policymakers to deal-
ing with people after they are released, an issue
that has been termed prisoner reentry. Fail-
ure to do so may well backfire, and the crime
reduction gains made in recent years erode,
unless we consider the cumulative impact of tens
of thousands of returning felons on families,
children, and communities. In particular, fail-
ure to pay attention to parole services is unfor-
tunate, since most inmates, at the point of
release, have an initial strong desire to succeed.
Of course, inmates have always been re-
leased from prison, and officials have long
struggled with how to help them succeed. But
the current situation is different. The numbers
dwarf anything in our history, the needs of
parolees are more serious, and the corrections
system retains few rehabilitation programs.
A number of unfortunate collateral conse-
quences are likely, including increases in child
abuse, family violence, the spread of infectious
diseases, homelessness, and community disor-
ganization. And with 1.3 million prisoners,
many more people have real-life knowledge of
the prison experience. Being incarcerated is
becoming almost a normal experience for
people in some communities. This phenom-
enon may affect the socialization of young
people, the ability of prison sentences to scare
and deter, and the future trajectory of crime
rates and crime victimization.

Parole in the U.S.-
Managing More People,
Managing Them Less Well
Changes in sentencing practices, coupled with
a decrease in availability of rehabilitation pro-
grams, have placed new demands on the parole
system. Support and funding have declined, re-
sulting in dangerously high caseloads. Parolees
sometimes abscond from supervision, often
without consequence. Not surprisingly, most
parolees fail to lead law-abiding lives and are
rearrested.
Determinate Sentencing
Means Automatic Release
Parole in the United States has changed dra-
matically since the mid-1970s, when most
inmates served open-ended indeterminate
prison terms-10 years to life, for example-
and a parole board, usually appointed by the
governor, had wide discretion to release in-
mates or keep them behind bars. In principle,
offenders were paroled only if they were re-
habilitated and had ties to the community-
such as a family or a job. This made release
from prison a privilege to be earned. If in-
mates violated parole, they could be returned
to prison to serve the balance of their term-
a strong incentive not to commit crimes.
Today, indeterminate sentencing and dis-
cretionary release have been replaced in 14
states with determinate sentencing and auto-
matic release (Tonry 1999). Offenders receive
fixed terms at the time of their initial sentenc-
ing and are automatically released at the end
of their prison term, usually with credits for
good time. For example, in California, where
more than 125,000 prisoners are released each
year, no parole board asks whether the inmate

is ready for release, since he or she must be
released once the prisoner has served the de-
terminate term imposed by the court. Most
California offenders are then subject to a one-
year term of parole supervision.
A parolee must generally be released to the
county where he last resided before going to
prison. Since offenders overwhelmingly come
from poor, culturally isolated, inner-city
neighborhoods, that is where they return.
Indeterminate sentencing was abolished
because of its discretionary quality. Studies
showed that wide disparities resulted when the
characteristics of the crime and the offender
were taken into account, and were influenced
by the offender's race, socioeconomic charac-
teristics, and place of conviction. But most
corrections officials believe that some ability to
individualize is necessary, since it provides a
way to take account of changes in behavior that
occur after the offender was incarcerated. Im-
prisonment can cause psychological break-
down, depression, or mental illness, or reveal
previously unrecognized personal problems,
and the parole board can adjust release dates
accordingly.
Most Parolees Have Unmet Needs
State and federal incarceration rates qua-
drupled between 1980-1996, and the U.S.
prison population now exceeds 1.3 million
persons. Sentences for drug offending are the
major reason for increases in admissions-
accounting for approximately 45 percent of
the growth. Aggravated assault and sexual
assault are also major contributors to growth
(Blumstein and Beck, 1999).
State and federal government have allo-
cated increasing shares of their budgets to

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