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Do Early-Release Programs Raise The Crime Rate?

Publication Date: 
September 14, 2009
John Cloud

Professor Joan Petersilia, an expert in parole reform and prisoner reintegration, is quoted in Time on early-release programs and the costs of incarceration:

Americans famously overspent during the 1990s and early '00s. It's a familiar story: we mortgaged oversized homes to buy colossal TVs. But you may have heard less about another commodity we binged on: justice. Americans indulged in an enormous criminal-justice spending spree during the past 25 years, locking up more and more offenders (particularly for drug-related crimes) for longer and longer sentences. Total spending on incarceration rose from $39 per U.S. resident in 1982 to $210 per resident in 2006, according to the most recent figures from the Justice Department. We now spend $62 billion a year on corrections, and about 500 of every 100,000 Americans are behind bars. As recently as the 1970s, the figure was only 100 in 100,000.

Owing to budget crises, many states are now having trouble affording to keep so many people locked up. Some states are cutting incarceration expenses by consolidating prisons; some are trying to slash prison-food and health-care costs. But real savings come only when you reduce prison populations, and so some states — including California, Colorado and Kentucky — have begun releasing inmates early. "The pressure in state legislatures all over the country is to bring down the populations, because we just can't afford the level of punishment that we've had the last 20 years," says Joan Petersilia, a criminologist at Stanford Law School.


"Every year," Stanford's Petersilia told the Los Angeles Times recently, "[the state of California] sends some 70,000 parolees back to prison, about 30,000 from L.A. County alone. Most serve two to three months. Everybody knows this revolving door does not protect the public ... These are the lower-level people who may have been in drug treatment [on the outside], may have found a job. When you send them back to prison, you break those connections."