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Parole, Desistance from Crime, and Community Integration Executive Summary Every day, about 1,600 people are released from prisons in the United States. Of these 600,000 new releasees every year, about 480,000 are subject to parole or some other kind of postrelease supervision. Prison releasees represent a challenge, both to themselves and to the communities to which they return. Will the releasees see parole as an opportunity to be reintegrated into society, with jobs and homes and supportive families and friends? Or will they commit new crimes or violate the terms of their parole contracts? If so, will they be returned to prison or placed under more stringent community supervision? Will the communities to which they return see them as people to be reintegrated or people to be avoided? And, the institution of parole itself is challenged with three different functions: to facilitate reintegration for parolees who are ready for rehabilitation; to deter crime; and to apprehend those parolees who commit new crimes and return them to prison. In recent decades, policy makers, researchers, and program administrators have focused almost exclusively on “recidivism,” which is essentially the failure of releasees to refrain from crime or stay out of prison. In contrast, for this study the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) of the U.S. Department of Justice asked the National Research Council to focus on “desistance,” which broadly covers continued absence of criminal activity and requires reintegration into society. Specifically, the committee was asked (1) to consider the current state of parole practices, new and emerging models of community supervision, and what is necessary for successful reentry and (2) to provide a research agenda on the effects of community
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Parole, Desistance from Crime, and Community Integration supervision on desistance from criminal activity, adherence to conditions of parole, and successful reentry into the community. To carry out its charge, the committee organized and held a workshop focused on traditional and new models of community supervision, the empirical underpinnings of such models, and the infrastructure necessary to support successful reentry. The committee also reviewed the literature on desistance from crime, community supervision, and the evaluation research on selected types of intervention. FINDINGS Parolees are a heterogeneous group, and their rates of desistance from crime vary widely: that is, there is no average parolee. Parolees who have short criminal records or have committed violent offenses have lower rates of recidivism than parolees who have long criminal records or have committed drug or property crimes. Releasees who have just served their first prison sentence have sharply lower rates of recidivism than those who have been imprisoned more than once, regardless of the sex, age, or race of the person or the type of crime. Among all parolees, many have significant education and cognitive deficits, as well as substance abuse and mental health problems. Contrary to the commonly quoted conclusion that “nothing works,” the evidence shows that some approaches work for some offenders and that other approaches show promise. Post release interventions that have shown measurable effects include treatment for substance abuse, especially when combined with frequent testing for drug abuse, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Comprehensive, multiservice employment and training programs and mentoring programs hold promise but require rigorous evaluation. The committee offers a number of significant findings. First, cognitive-behavioral treatment programs reduce recidivism significantly. Second, the peak rates of committing a new crime or violating the terms of parole occur in the first days, weeks, and months after release. Third, deaths among releasees are very high in the first weeks after release, more than 12 times the average for the general population. Clearly, the first days and weeks out of prison are the riskiest for both releasees and the general public. In addition, extensive longitudinal research on desistance highlights specific conditions that lead to less offending: good and stable marriages and strong ties to work appear to be particularly important. These findings seem somewhat at odds with findings from program evaluation that individual-level change, including shifts in cognitive thinking, education, and drug treatment, are likely to be more effective than programs that increase opportunities for work, reunite families, and provide housing. We caution, however, that many findings on the effects of desistance programs
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Parole, Desistance from Crime, and Community Integration are limited, generally because of inadequate program implementation and because of failure to fully account for self-selection bias in evaluations. These findings have major implications for the design of services and interventions, for both parole systems and other community-based programs. A first-time parolee who committed a violent crime needs a different program than a drug-using repeat parolee who committed a drug crime. However, concentrating supervision and services in the first days and weeks out of prison is likely to have most effects on desistance. RECOMMENDATIONS The evidence on the rates of death and crime commission within the first weeks of a person’s release argue strongly for a redirection of postrelease program and service provision efforts to those first days and weeks after release. We recommend that parole authorities and administrators of both in-prison and postrelease programs redesign their activities and redirect their resources to provide major support to parolees and other releasees at the time of release. Such programs may take many different forms, including: intensive and detailed prerelease and postrelease counseling; immediate enrollment in drug treatment programs, intense parole supervision; assistance in finding work; short-term halfway houses; mentors who are available at the moment of release; and assistance in obtaining identification, clothes, and other immediate needs. The key is that a person should not leave prison without an immediately available person and plan for postrelease life. We also recommend that longer term assistance for parolees include cognitive-behavioral treatment approaches. RESEARCH NEEDS Future research on parole and desistance needs to be more methodologically rigorous. In program design, random assignment should be used when possible; when it is not possible, more attention is needed to the selection of comparison groups and to the use of appropriate statistical techniques to account for differences between program participants and comparison groups. In program implementation, more attention is needed to ensure fidelity to program principles and procedures. In program evaluation, more attention is needed to avoid the possibility of self-selection bias. Rigorous research is needed to explain gaps between the research findings on what influences desistance and evaluation findings of program effects. Also needed are improvements in the conceptualization and design of program content based on research findings on desistance. Research is
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Parole, Desistance from Crime, and Community Integration needed on how cognitive-behavioral treatment approaches can be expanded effectively to meet current demands. The committee’s findings and recommendation regarding the need for interventions at the point of release present a unique opportunity for research. Because different jurisdictions are likely to implement different programs for new releasees, these “natural experiments” can be systematically studied to learn what works best for which kinds of releasees. Closely related to research on early interventions for releasees is the question of whether people who are going to “fail” usually do so quickly or whether early interventions can make a difference—not only by delaying recidivism, but also by reducing it. A related question is whether the higher recidivism rate for offenders with multiple imprisonments is a function of their characteristics or the effects of the prison and postprison experiences. There has been little research on the effects of parolees (and other releasees) on the local communities to which they return, particularly on crime rates. Also largely missing has been research on the validity and significance of the arrest data for parolees. For example, do parolees actually commit more crimes than people with similar characteristics who live in the same neighborhoods, or are parolees arrested more often only because they are under closer scrutiny? There is a related question from the reverse perspective. What are the effects of neighborhood or community conditions—such as the presence of high crime rates or drug markets or the availability of social and treatment services—on parolees? A second related question is the role of arrests and returns to prison for violations of specific conditions of parole contracts, rather than for new crimes: Is imprisonment—rather than a short-term stay in jail or other sanction in the context of continued parole supervision—the best way to deal with such violations, particularly in light of the general overcrowding of U.S. prisons? Similarly, is the revocation of parole, rather than a new prosecution, the best way to deal with a new offense by a parolee? Looking at the parole system itself, there has been little research on its effects. A range of questions need to be answered, including: What kinds of supervision work best with what kinds of releasees? What are the effects of policies that bar parolees from public-subsidized housing and other social services? Should parolees be released to places other than their home communities—particularly if such communities are high-crime areas—in order to promote desistance? How can technological approaches, such as the use of global positioning systems (GPSs), help parole authorities and promote desistance? How effective are incentives that reward and promote desistance (e.g., less intrusive supervision or the remission of fines), compared with relying solely on punishments for violating the terms of parole? What types of incentives are most effective both for increasing desistance
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Parole, Desistance from Crime, and Community Integration among parolees and for increasing the performance and job satisfaction of parole officers? The large number of parolees and other released prisoners in the country makes it urgent to carry out research on the conditions, policies, and programs that will promote desistance and successful reintegration into U.S. society.
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