Every year, the United States sets two prison records—one we talk about, and one we don't. Our mania for incarceration is common knowledge: The number of state and federal prisoners has quadrupled to 1.3 million in the past 25 years. But Americans have paid no attention at all to the backdoor of the prison. Inmates are arriving at an unprecedented rate, but they are also leaving at one.
This year, American prisons will release more than 600,000 inmates, up from 170,000 in 1980. (To put it another way, a city with a population larger than Washington, D.C., leaves prison every year. And this does not even count the hundreds of thousands of lesser criminals who finish short jail sentences.) We lock them up, but we don't throw away the key. For all the hoopla that surrounds the death penalty and life sentences, only a teeny fraction of inmates—fewer than 4,000 per year—actually die in prison. Those who study "prisoner re-entry" have a new catch phrase to describe prisoners returning home: "They all come back."
Prisons still admit about 50,000 more offenders than they release, which is why the total census keeps increasing. But the growth rate is slowing, and by 2005, prisons may be springing as many people as they enroll. By 2010, according to University of California, Irvine, criminologist Joan Petersilia, annual releases may reach 1.2 million.
(The United States is becoming an ex-con nation. According to preliminary estimates by researchers Christopher Uggen, Melissa Thompson, and Jeff Manza, 5 million Americans are serving or have served prison sentences. That translates into 5 percent of American men, and 15 percent-20 percent of black men. They also estimate that 13 million people—including one-third of black men—have been convicted of a felony.)
Are the released felons more dangerous than when they went up the river? According to the best studies, the surge in incarceration is responsible for one-quarter of the '90s crime drop. (Economics and demographics are key reasons for the other three-quarters.) Does this mean the crime rate will spike as all these folks return home? "That is the $64,000 question," says Urban Institute senior fellow Jeremy Travis, a leading scholar of prisoner re-entry. "And no one has the answer."
Surprisingly little is known about prisoner re-entry. Ex-cons are extremely difficult to study, because they're transient and suspicious of authority. Almost no one has paid attention to them for 20 years. The fascination with prisoner rehabilitation that flowered a generation ago has withered. Vocational and educational programs didn't cut recidivism. Many parole boards, which had vast discretion to free prisoners early, were stripped of their power after being attacked from both the left (for being too hard on minorities) and the right (for being too soft on everyone). And the political climate chilled for prisoners, as the crime declines of the '90s confirmed the popular belief that we should worry more about putting them away than helping them out.
Still, enough information exists to conclude that ex-cons are dangerous to society and to themselves. In the mid-'80s, a major national recidivism study—the only one that's ever been conducted—found incredibly high rates of re-arrest and reconviction. Nearly two-thirds of ex-inmates were re-arrested on serious charges within three years, and 41 percent were reconvicted and returned to prison. A tracked group of 68,000 ex-offenders committed more than 300,000 felonies and misdemeanors in the three years after release.
There are many reasons to believe that today's army of released prisoners poses even more danger and faces even worse prospects than the smaller cohorts of the past. Ex-cons spend more time in prison than they used to. According to "From Prison to Home," a report published by the Urban Institute this week, prisoners released in 1998 served 27 percent longer than those released in 1990—28 months versus 22 months. Longer sentences, contends the Urban Institute's Travis, weaken the social and economic ties that may shield prisoners when they return to society. The longer you serve, the less contact you have with family, friends, and employers; the more your job skills deteriorate; the more your social network consists of other criminals.
Prisons do less now to prepare inmates for life outside. Vocational and educational programs have been cut and inmate participation in them has dropped. Drug treatment is even scarcer than it used to be. Though the proportion of inmates with drug problems has remained steady, the percentage receiving treatment plunged from 25 percent in 1990 to only 10 percent in 1997. States have also gutted parole. "Truth-in-sentencing" laws—most states now require violent felons to serve 85 percent of their sentences—mean that more and more prisoners are serving most of their sentences in prison then are released without any restrictions. More than 100,000 prisoners were released unsupervised last year. Researchers suspect that unsupervised releasees have harsher re-entries than those on parole. Not that parole is so effective: Budgets have contracted, and the average parole officer monitors 70 felons, up from 45 a few years ago. Other transitional institutions, such as halfway houses, have also weakened.
American society remains hostile toward ex-cons, and new laws and surveillance techniques make it easier to be tough on returning felons. Employers can quickly check criminal records and deny employment to former inmates. Some states have banned ex-prisoners from public employment and public housing. The declining economy will hit ex-cons hard: Since they are the most marginal employees, they are first to lose their jobs in a recession. More and more live in the poorest areas. The Urban Institute says that two-thirds of inmates return to "core" urban counties (where jobs are scarce), up from only half a decade ago. (California found that 70 percent-90 percent of its parolees are unemployed.)
Returning prisoners may be more dangerous than they used to be. An enormous number are violent: 140,000 of the 1998 graduating class are violent criminals, up from 75,000 in 1985. More ex-offenders than ever suffer mental illness. And ex-cons pose a health danger, too: Prisoner rates of HIV infection, tuberculosis, and hepatitis C run five to 10 times the national average. (According to the Urban Institute, in 1997, one-quarter of all Americans with HIV/AIDS were released from prison or jail.) Prisoners return as disease vectors as well as crime vectors.
Not all the data is awful. Releasees average 34 years old, up from 29 years old in the '70s. (They are older because they are serving longer sentences, and because the big baby boom cohort drags the average age up.) Felons commit fewer crimes as they get older, so by locking up crooks longer, we may be naturally aging them out of a life of crime. The stats about violent ex-cons are also ambiguous. Though record numbers of violent offenders are getting out this year, they actually represent a lower percentage of released inmates—only one-quarter of all releasees, down from 32 percent in 1985. (The percentage of violent offenders has dropped because many more releasees are nonviolent drug offenders.)
The best news for ex-cons may be that people are interested in them again. The Urban Institute's Travis speculates that the record crime drop, the strong economy, and perhaps even the success of welfare reform have convinced Americans that ex-prisoners are worth worrying about. The public policy community is seized with passion about this. George Soros' Open Society Institute has been sponsoring re-entry studies, as have at least two other major foundations. The Urban Institute's "From Prison to Home" is the first comprehensive prisoner re-entry report in years; the General Accounting Office is publishing findings on federal re-entry next week, and the Department of Justice will release the first major recidivism study in 15 years this fall. Congress appropriated nearly $100 million this year for pilot re-entry programs, and the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a new bill to assist federal-prisoner re-entry.
No crystal answers have emerged yet. (Most articles and reports, in fact, conclude that: "We need further study …") How re-entry affects the crime rate remains an open question, as does what kind of programs best help ex-cons. Still, there are a few promising ideas. Researchers had concluded that job training is useless, but recent work by Shawn Bushway of the University of Maryland hints that job training at least helps older prisoners, encouraging them stay away from crime and stick to the legit economy. Other evidence suggests that pre- and post-release drug treatment helps ex-cons live straight. Many researchers insist that more parole and rigorous supervision of ex-cons will dampen recidivism.
There is a very callous reason why the current effort on behalf of ex-cons may succeed where the attempts of the '60s and '70s failed. Today's fascination with ex-cons is rooted not in emotion but in pragmatism. Most researchers and activists don't seem greatly animated by sympathy for prisoners. They fret about the threat the ex-cons pose to public safety, public health, and general social order, and worry little about the threat the ex-cons pose to themselves. This is not a grand lefty crusade. No one is romanticizing what prisoners are like and what reforms can accomplish. Conservatives can embrace this struggle as easily as liberals. If we're stuck with ex-cons—and we've finally realized that we are, by the millions—we had better figure out something to do with them.