Earlier release of nonviolent inmates wise
There is a near panic among California lawmakers and law enforcement officials that the federal courts will order the state to release inmates early in order to relieve dangerous overcrowding in California prisons. In response, the governor and legislators approved a massive and expensive prison expansion measure last week.
But would early release -- that is, letting some inmates out of prison 90 to 180 days earlier than scheduled -- really be such a bad thing? Researchers for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a respected Oakland-based criminal justice research organization, examined 14 studies of early release programs in eight states and Canada over the past 22 years, including one program in California.
In most of the studies reviewed researchers found "no significant difference in rates of recidivism (a repeat of criminal activity) among early release inmates and those who served their full terms."
In some studies, they found lower rates of recidivism among inmates released early. Also, reviews of government crime data collected in states with early release programs showed early releases had no impact on crime rates or that crime actually declined during those times the early release programs were in place.
While the literature about early release is encouraging, researchers offered a cautionary note. It is not enough to simply release people early, noted Barry Krisberg, president of NCCD who directed the research review.
The research showed that early release worked best where nonviolent offenders were selected. The program should be used as an incentive to promote better behavior in prison. Most important, the program needs adequate numbers of probation officers to maintain contact with inmates released early and to help link those inmates with programs on the outside. Once in society, many of these former inmates need help with housing, employment, substance abuse and mental health treatment.
If early release is accompanied with good support and follow-up outside prisons, it doesn't have to result in greater risk to the public. In fact, when done carefully, it can make our streets and our prisons safer.
Unfortunately, nothing in the new $7.3 billion prison expansion bill that legislators approved and the governor signed will be taking advantage of any of the useful data gleaned from the research.