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Urban Institute Study on Parole, 2005

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1

DOES PAROLE WORK?

t

Analyzing the Impact of Postprison Supervision on Rearrest Outcomes
RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS
Ⅲ Overall, parole supervision has

little effect on rearrest rates of
released prisoners. Mandatory
parolees, who account for the
largest share of released prisoners, fare no better on supervision than similar prisoners
released without supervision. In
fact, in some cases they fare
worse. While discretionary
parolees are less likely to be
rearrested, this difference narrows (to 4 percentage points)
after taking into account personal characteristics and criminal histories.
(Continued on page 2)

MARCH 2005
AMY L. SOLOMON
VERA KACHNOWSKI

he vast majority of prisoners in this country (about 80 percent) are
released “conditionally,” subject to a period of supervision in the
community, often called “parole.”1 Parole supervision is used as both
a surveillance tool and a social service mechanism and ideally serves a
deterrent role in preventing new crimes from occurring. Parole
supervision can function as a surveillance tool by monitoring and
sanctioning those who violate conditions of release, potentially averting
more serious reoffending. Parole supervision can also act as a social service
mechanism by using rules and incentives to engage ex-prisoners in positive
activities, such as work and drug treatment, and to place ex-prisoners in programs that may help reentry transitions. While the focus of parole supervision
has shifted more toward the surveillance function over the years,2 the number
of people subject to it continues to grow. In 2003, over 774,000 adult men and
women were under parole supervision in the United States,3 up from 197,000
in 1980.4
Despite its widespread use, remarkably little is known about whether parole
supervision increases public safety or improves reentry transitions. Prior
research indicates that fewer than half of parolees successfully complete their
period of parole supervision without violating a condition of release or committing a new offense,5 and that two-thirds of all prisoners are rearrested within
three years of release.6 To date, however, no national studies have compared the
criminal activity of prisoners who are supervised after release to that of their
unsupervised counterparts.

AVINASH BHATI

URBAN
INSTITUTE
2100 M STREET, N.W.
WASHINGTON, D.C. 20037

In this research brief, we use data from a Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) recidivism study7 (see “Data Sources and Limitations” sidebar) to compare prisoners
released to parole supervision in 1994 with prisoners who completed their
entire prison sentence and were released without any supervision or reporting
requirements.8 Our goal is to assess, at an aggregate level, whether parole
“works” at reducing recidivism among those who are supervised after release
from state prison.

2

RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS
(Continued from page 1)
Ⅲ Certain prisoners benefit more from supervision—espe-

cially discretionary release to supervision—than others.
For example, females, individuals with few prior arrests,
public order offenders, and technical violators are less
likely to be rearrested if supervised after prison. Persons
with a combination of these characteristics, representing
relatively low-level offenders, exhibit even lower rearrest
rates if supervised. Conversely, supervision does not

The report is organized around three key questions.
First, do prisoners released with and without supervision
differ with respect to demographics, incarceration characteristics, and criminal histories? Second, do prisoners
released with and without supervision recidivate at different rates? And finally, if there are differences in recidivism outcomes between those released with and without
supervision, when and for whom does supervision matter most?

BEYOND CONDITIONAL AND
UNCONDITIONAL: THE ROLE OF
THE RELEASE MECHANISM
To assess the relationship between parole supervision
and recidivism, we must look not only at whether a
person is supervised after release, but also how they
were released. Persons released unconditionally—without any postrelease supervision—are released when
their sentences end. Alternatively, persons released conditionally are released to supervision by two different
methods, discretionary release and mandatory release.
In this section we describe the differences between these
release mechanisms and examine shifting trends in
their use.
Prisoners released to supervision via discretionary release
have been screened by a parole board or other authority

improve rearrest outcomes for some of the higher rate,
more serious offenders.
Ⅲ Of the largest groups of released prisoners—male drug,

property, and violent offenders—only property offenders
released to discretionary parole benefit from supervision. Violent offenders released to supervision are no
less likely to be rearrested than their unsupervised counterparts. For male drug offenders, mandatory release to
supervision predicts higher rearrest rates than for unconditional releasees or discretionary parolees.

to determine “readiness” to return to the community.
Parole boards, which often face substantial pressures to
reduce prison overcrowding, determine who presents
the lowest risk of reoffending and is most prepared for
release. Among other factors, parole boards consider
criminal histories, institutional conduct, and positive
connections to the community such as employment,
housing arrangements, and ties to family. Appearing
before a parole board may provide an incentive for prisoners to participate in programming and arrange transition plans to improve their chances of early release.
Until the 1980s, discretionary parole was the predominant method of release, accounting for 55 percent of all
prison releases. Over the past two decades, however,
discretionary release has largely fallen out of favor with
policymakers.9 By 2000, just 24 percent of released prisoners were discretionary releasees (figure 1),10 and 16
states had abolished discretionary release altogether.11
Other states have retained discretionary release but limit
its use to certain offenses.12
Mandatory release to supervision typically occurs in
states that use determinant sentencing schemes and now
accounts for about 40 percent of all prison releases.13
Mandatory release occurs when a prisoner has served
his original sentence, less any accumulated good time
credit, and serves the remaining balance of his sentence
under supervision in the community. Good time credit

3

DATA SOURCES AND LIMITATIONS
This report relies primarily on Bureau of Justice Statistics
(BJS) data on 38,624 prisoners released in 1994 from
15 states: Arizona, California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois,
Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North
Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, and Virginia. This sample of
prisoners is representative of the 272,111 prisoners released from those states in 1994—two-thirds of all prisoners
released nationwide in 1994. Due to issues with the data,
Delaware is excluded from the analysis in this report. The BJS
data used for this analysis are available at the Inter-University
Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) website,
http://www.icpsr.umich.edu. The full BJS report, “Recidivism
of Prisoners Released in 1994,” by Patrick Langan and David
Levin, is available at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/
rpr94.htm. Our analysis also used Census Bureau data available at http://www.census.gov/main/www/cen1990.html
and National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP) data,
available at the ICPSR website.
There are several limitations to our data. First, our analysis
relies on rearrests as a proxy for reoffending, although
rearrests reflect a combination of both criminal activity and
policy decisions (e.g., to report a crime, to arrest an individual, to revoke parole). Further, those on supervision may
be watched more closely by law enforcement as well as
parole officers, and thus criminal activity committed by

is typically earned through program participation or
good behavior while incarcerated. Mandatory releasees
have not received a determination of fitness to return to
the community from a parole board or other authority.14 Postprison supervision resulting from discretionary or mandatory release is not systematically
different. In most states, conditions of supervision are
similar for both types of parolees, although discretionary parolees often spend more time under supervision
than mandatory parolees (see “State Variation” sidebar).15

parolees may be more likely to be detected than criminal
activity commited by unconditional releasees. Future
research would benefit from self-reported data on actual
offending behavior.
Additionally, while the BJS data sources provided important
information on the personal and criminal histories of released prisoners, information on the nature of supervision
was not available. Individual-level data on intensity of supervision, length of supervision, reporting requirements, and services received would be useful. And although we were able to
control for state-level effects, we did not have specific information on differences in state sentencing and parole practices and revocation policies. In particular, the research
would benefit enormously from system-level data about risk
assessment tools, contact standards, caseload averages,
case planning, case management strategies, and neighborhood-based supervision models. Without such information,
we are unable to consider how various types of supervision
affect rearrest outcomes. For example, perhaps some supervision strategies are very effective but the aggregate level of
the data does not allow observation of these differences.
Finally, as discussed in the “State Variation” sidebar, parole
practices and outcomes vary substantially across states.
The aggregate nature of our analysis may bury significant
differences at the state level relative to the outcomes
associated with parole.

FIGURE 1. Share of State Prisoners Nationwide Released
Conditionally and Unconditionally, 1980–2000
Percent
60
50

Conditional, discretionary

40
30
Conditional, mandatory
20
Unconditional

Finally, unconditional release occurs when prisoners
have served the entirety of their sentence behind bars
and must be released without any conditions, community supervision, or reporting requirements. As such,
these individuals cannot be returned to prison for any

10
0
1980

1984

1988

1992

1996

Source: Hughes, Wilson, and Beck, “Trends in State Parole,
1990–2000” and National Corrections Reporting Program.

2000

4

DEFINITIONS OF KEY TERMS
Conditional Release: Release from prison to supervision with a set of conditions for remaining on parole,
which, if violated, can cause the person to be

New Court Commitment: Persons entering prison
directly from a court sentence for a new offense, and
not from an unsuccessful period of community supervision (parole).

returned to prison. This subsequent incarceration

Parole or Probation Violator Commitment: Persons

can be for any of the remaining portion of the sen-

entering prison as a result of a parole or probation

tence the inmate may have on the current offense.

violation, such as violating a condition of supervision.

Determinate Sentencing: Fixed prison terms that

Parole Supervision: A period of conditional super-

can only be reduced by good time or other earned

vised release following a prison term. Prisoners may

time-reduction credit.

be released to parole either by a parole board deci-

Discretionary Release to Parole Supervision:
Prisoners are conditionally released to supervision

sion (discretionary) or according to statutory provisions (mandatory).

based on a statutory or administrative determination

Unconditional Release: Release from prison upon

of eligibility by a parole board or other authority.

the expiration of the sentence, without being subject

Good Time Credit: Credit earned by prisoners that
reduces their total length of stay in prison. Good time
credit may be awarded for good behavior, program
participation, exceptional deeds, or, in some cases,

to any conditions of release or supervision in the
community. These persons have served their entire
prison term and thus do not face the possibility of
return to prison for the current offense.

automatically. Except for Hawaii, Montana, and Utah,
all states have a good time credit system.

Sources: Definitions adapted from Paula Ditton and Doris
Wilson. 1999. “Truth in Sentencing in State Prisons.”

Indeterminate Sentencing: A sentencing structure,

Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. Washington,

common in the early 1970s, where no fixed term is

DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs;

assigned and parole boards are given the authority to

Timothy Hughes, Doris Wilson, and Allen Beck. 2001.

release offenders from prison.

“Trends in State Parole, 1990–2000.” Bureau of Justice
Statistics Special Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department

Mandatory Release to Parole Supervision: Prisoners

of Justice, Office of Justice Programs; Greg Jones, Michael

are conditionally released to supervision after serving

Connelly, and Kate Wagner. 2001. “The Effects of

a portion of their original sentence less any good time

Diminution Credits on Inmate Behavior and Recidivism: An

credit earned. Mandatory release generally occurs in

Overview.” College Park: Maryland State Commission on

jurisdictions using determinate sentencing statutes.

Criminal Sentencing Policy.

portion of their original sentence (e.g., their release
cannot be revoked for violating conditions of release,
because there are none). Similar to mandatory releasees,
prisoners released unconditionally were not granted
early release via a parole board in states retaining discretionary parole. Further, unconditional releasees did
not earn good time credit while incarcerated and were
imprisoned until their original sentence expired.

Prisoners released without supervision account for
about one-fifth of all prison releases,16 with substantial
variation across states.
The vast majority of prisoners in the BJS recidivism
study were released conditionally: Mandatory releases
to supervision accounted for 57 percent of released
prisoners and discretionary releases accounted for

5

35 percent. The remaining 8 percent of prisoners in the
sample were released unconditionally.17 Throughout
this report, we discuss released prisoners’ characteristics and recidivism outcomes in terms of three categories of releasees: (1) prisoners released conditionally
following discretionary release, referred to as “discretionary parolees”; (2) prisoners released conditionally
following mandatory release, referred to as “mandatory parolees”; and (3) prisoners released unconditionally, referred to as “unconditional releasees.” While we
refer to prisoners released to parole as “parolees,” they
were not necessarily on parole throughout the entire
period of analysis.18

interested in whether persons released conditionally (via
mandatory and discretionary release) and unconditionally had different risk factors that would suggest a greater
likelihood of postrelease recidivism.19 Prisoners in all
three release categories had similar demographic characteristics. The average age at release among all three categories was 32 or 33 years old, and the vast majority was
male. Just over half of unconditional releasees and discretionary parolees were black, compared with about 40 percent of mandatory parolees (table 1).
More than 90 percent of each group had been arrested
in the past. Unconditional releasees and mandatory
parolees, however, had slightly higher average numbers
of prior arrests than discretionary parolees. We also examined prior arrests for violent crimes as another indicator of potential risk to the community upon release.
Our analysis showed that larger shares of prisoners
released unconditionally had previously been arrested for
a violent offense than had mandatory parolees, with discretionary parolees the least likely to have been arrested

CHARACTERISTICS OF
RELEASED PRISONERS
We began our analysis with an examination of the release groups’ demographics and criminal histories, as well
as the characteristics of the incarceration from which the
prisoner was most recently released. Specifically, we were

TABLE 1. Characteristics of Prisoners Released in 1994, by Supervision Status at Release
Unconditional releasees

Mandatory parolees

Discretionary parolees

32.7
93
55

32.6
92
42

31.9
90
54

Criminal history
Previously arrested (%)
Average number of prior arrests
Previously arrested for violent offense (%)
Prior incarcerations (prison or jail, %)
Average number of prior incarcerations

93
9.6
67
68
2.7

94
9.5
63
69
2.5

92
7.5
55
67
2.3

Incarceration characteristics
Incarcerated for violent offense (%)
Incarcerated for drug offense (%)
Incarcerated for property offense (%)
Incarcerated for public order offense (%)
Average time served (months)

27
30
33
9
32.0

21
31
35
9
18.5

23
34
31
10
21.3

Demographics
Average age at release (years)
Male (%)
Black (%)

Source: Urban Institute analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

6

for a violent offense in the past (figure 2). Around twothirds of each group had been confined to prison or jail
previously, two to three times on average (table 1).
Additional Findings
Ⅲ A higher share of the prisoners released unconditionally were serving sentences for a violent offense compared with those released to supervision. A slightly
higher share of discretionary parolees were serving
time for a drug offense compared with the other
groups, while a slightly higher share of mandatory
parolees were property offenders (table 1).
Ⅲ

Over two-thirds of discretionary parolees were serving
sentences for a new court commitment, compared
with about half of unconditional releasees and mandatory parolees. In other words, higher shares of the
unconditional releasees and mandatory parolees were
incarcerated most recently for a parole or probation
revocation.

Ⅲ

Prisoners released unconditionally served almost a
year longer behind bars, on average, than prisoners
released to supervision. The longer terms served by
unconditional releasees may reflect the nature of their
charge or institutional conduct that prevented them

from earning good time credit.20 For those unconditional releasees who returned to prison for a parole
revocation, the longer time served may reflect their
serving the remaining balance of their original sentence behind bars, which is typical in some states.
In sum, while individuals in all three release groups have
similar demographic characteristics, unconditional
releasees and mandatory parolees appear to be slightly
higher-risk populations overall, as compared with discretionary parolees, given that they had more prior arrests
and were more likely to have previously been arrested for
a violent offense. Unconditional releasees were also
slightly more likely than their supervised counterparts to
be serving time for a violent offense. Further, the fact
that prisoners released unconditionally served longer
terms on average, and thus had been removed from society for a longer period of time, suggests that they may
have become more disconnected from positive social
networks than their supervised counterparts.

RECIDIVISM OUTCOMES
The BJS recidivism study found that within two years
of release, 59 percent of ex-prisoners were rearrested,

FIGURE 2. Share of Released Prisoners with Prior Arrests, by Supervision Status at Release
Percent
100
90

Unconditional
93

94

92

Mandatory parolees

80

Discretionary parolees

70
67

60

63

50

55

40
30
20
10
0
Any prior arrest
Source: Urban Institute analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

Violent prior arrest

7

WHAT DOES PRIOR RESEARCH SAY ABOUT THE
IMPACT OF SUPERVISION ON RECIDIVISM?
While no national studies have compared rearrest rates for
U.S. prisoners released with and without supervision, a
small study investigated outcomes for prisoners released
in Canada in 1968 and found similar trends to those
described in this report.1 The study compared the rearrest
rates of discretionary parolees (n=210) to unconditional
releasees (those who had applied for parole and been
denied [n=100] and those who never applied for parole
[n=113]). Within two years of release, 68 percent of the
unconditional releasees were rearrested, compared with
44 percent of the parolees. When the study controlled for
the fact the parole boards select “better risk” individuals,
however, the differences in rearrest rates between parolees and unconditional releasees were virtually identical.
The most rigorous study of supervision and recidivism in
the United States is a nine-state randomized evaluation
that compared offenders monitored in Intensive Supervision Programs (ISPs) to those subject to standard
supervision.2 The authors found little difference in overall
rearrest rates between the ISP treatment group and the
control group, although the treatment group had considerably higher levels of technical violations—likely the result
of heightened surveillance inherent in ISPs. The study was
unable to determine whether intensive monitoring and
sanctioning of technical violations actually resulted in
improved public safety outcomes. The research did, however, show that intensive supervision was successful at
increasing program participation. Importantly, a review of

36 percent were reconvicted, and 19 percent were returned
to prison with new sentences.21 We expand on these recidivism findings by describing rearrest outcomes by supervision status. We focus on rearrest as the closest proxy to
offender behavior, acknowledging that rearrest is an imperfect measure of the relationship between supervision
and criminal activity. Rearrests do not measure how much
actual reoffending has occurred, but how much criminal
activity has been detected, and supervision increases the
likelihood that criminal activity will be detected.22 While

four ISP studies, including the one described above, found
that supervision strategies that included some level of
rehabilitation or treatment in combination with surveillance
techniques were more effective in reducing rearrest rates
than surveillance alone.3
In addition, a small yet relevant study explored the impact
of probation on the criminal activity of 125 offenders.4 It
compared offenders’ outcomes while on probation with
their outcomes in the year preceding probation. The study
found that probation did have an impact on the criminal
activities of probationers, particularly among older offenders and property and drug offenders. Probation appeared to
reduce the number of offenders who recidivated, the rate
of offending among recidivists, and high-risk behavior
linked to crime. It was not clear, however, whether the
arrest and/or sentencing events—and not probation supervision itself—actually affected offending behavior.
1

Irwin Waller. 1974. Men Released from Prison. Toronto, Ontario:
University of Toronto Press.

2

Joan Petersilia and Susan Turner. 1993. “Intensive Probation and Parole.” In Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, vol.17, edited by
Michael Tonry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. See also Joan
Petersilia and Susan Turner. 1993. “Evaluating Intensive Supervision
Probation/Parole: Results from a Nationwide Experiment.” NIJ Research
in Brief. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice
Programs.

3

Lawrence W. Sherman, Denise Gottfredson, Doris MacKenzie, John
Eck, Peter Reuter, and Shawn Bushway. 1998. Preventing Crime: What
Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising. Research in Brief. Washington,
DC: National Institute of Justice. http://www.ncjrs.org/works/.

4

Doris MacKenzie, Katharine Browning, Stacy Skroban, and Douglas
Smith. 1999. “The Impact of Probation on the Criminal Activities of Offenders.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 36(4): 423–53.

the rearrest rates for all three groups may underestimate
the actual incidences of recidivism, it may be especially
true for unconditional releasees, as the absence of supervision reduces the likelihood that criminal activity will be
detected. That said, we still expected to find that prisoners
released without supervision would be rearrested more
frequently than conditional releasees given the characteristics of the groups (discussed above), combined with the
absence of supervision (we assumed supervision would
deter some criminal behavior among parolees).

8

Our analysis indicates that in the two years after their
release, discretionary parolees were less likely to be
rearrested than both mandatory parolees and prisoners released unconditionally. Just over 60 percent
of unconditional releasees and mandatory parolees
were rearrested at least once over two years, compared
with 54 percent of discretionary parolees.23 Individuals
in each group had between two and two and a half
rearrests, on average, during the two-year period
(table 2).

TABLE 2. Rearrest Outcomes after Two Years, by Supervision
Status at 1994 Release
Unconditional Mandatory Discretionary
releasees
parolees
parolees

Percent rearrested
Average number of
rearrests

62%

61%

54%

2.5

2.1

2.1

Source: Urban Institute analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

Our finding that discretionary parolees were less likely
to be rearrested than unconditional releasees and
mandatory parolees could suggest that parole boards are
making sound decisions by choosing lower risk prisoners for release. Alternatively, it could indicate that
supervision has a more beneficial impact on this group
than on mandatory parolees.24 To isolate the impact of
supervision on rearrest, we conducted statistical modeling that controlled for all other demographic, criminal
history, and contextual variables included in the analysis
(see “Methodology” sidebar). The results revealed that
when comparing two individuals with similar characteristics, their rearrest outcomes—based exclusively
on their supervision status—differ only slightly. Specifically, when all other variables were controlled for, the
predicted probability of rearrest for mandatory parolees
and unconditional releasees was identical at 61 percent,

We evaluated the safety threat these groups posed to the
community by examining the types of offenses for which
prisoners were rearrested. We started by looking at the
distribution of offenses among those who were rearrested at least once. Roughly the same shares of all three
groups were first rearrested for property offenses, while a
higher share of mandatory parolees were first rearrested
for drug offenses, and a slightly higher share of unconditional releasees were first rearrested for violent crimes
(figure 3). We then determined what percentage of all
prisoners in each group were arrested for a violent crime
in the two years following release. About one-fifth
(22 percent) of unconditional releasees were rearrested
for a violent crime during the two years following
release—a larger share than mandatory (17 percent)
or discretionary (14 percent) parolees.

FIGURE 3. First Rearrest Offense of Prisoners Who Were Rearrested at Least Once, by Supervision Status at 1994 Release
Percent
35
Unconditional releasees
30

31

30

25
20

25

23

27

Mandatory parolees

29

Discretionary parolees
21

15

19

19
17

19

16

10

10

10

5

5

0
Drug

Property

Source: Urban Institute analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

Violent

Public order

Other/Unknown

9

STUDY METHODOLOGY

females; (2) county poverty rate; (3) county unemployment
rate; and (4) share of county population that is black. We

The results presented in this report are based on a combination of descriptive analysis, regression analysis, and

used county of sentencing as the best proxy for county of
return because the latter was unavailable.

simulation results. We relied on descriptive analysis to
address the first two questions of interest—whom states

Based on the results of the regression analysis, we esti-

release conditionally versus unconditionally, and whether

mated probabilities of rearrest within a two-year follow-up

these groups recidivate at differential rates. These results,

period for various combinations of the included characteris-

which are discussed in first half of the report, are based on

tics. This simulation analysis entails estimating and com-

comparisons of the average characteristics among the

paring predicted probabilities by varying one or more of the

three categories of released prisoners. As such, the

included characteristics while holding the others fixed. In

results are used only to describe the three groups of

this way, we are guaranteed to capture only the effects of

releasees. To address the remaining research question—

those characteristics that are varied (i.e., their marginal

when and for whom does supervision matter most—we

effects). For discrete measures, such as race and gender,

relied on a combination of multivariate regression and

this simulation analysis is natural and easy to perform. For

simulation analyses.

continuous variables, however, we need to select specific
points at which to simulate the probabilities. For the three

We used multivariate logistic regression analysis to better

continuous variables included in our models—number of

understand the impacts that individual and community

prior arrests, age, and resource deprivation—we selected

characteristics may have on the probability of recidivism for

three analysis points based on the distribution of these

individuals released under supervision and those released

variables in the data. These points represent typical “low,”

unconditionally. Unlike the necessarily bivariate nature of

“medium,” and “high” values for each of these characteris-

the descriptive analysis, the multivariate analysis allows

tics. For prior arrests, three prior arrests represented a typ-

us to control for the effects of all included characteristics

ical person with few prior arrests, six represented a typical

simultaneously. Our final models of the probability of an

person with medium prior arrests, and 12 represented a

individual’s rearrest within the two-year follow-up period

typical person with high prior arrests. For age, we used

included (1) the individual-level characteristics shown in

25 to represent low, 31 to represent medium, and 37 to

table 3—criminal history, age, race, admission type, and

represent high age. For resource deprivation, an index of

offense type; (2) an index of community indicators we

factor analysis scores was created, ranging from 0 to 100.

called “resource deprivation” that takes into account sev-

Based on the distribution of scores, a score of 31 repre-

eral characteristics of the community to which the released

sented low, 42 represented medium, and 47 represented

prisoner returns; (3) the prisoner’s supervision status at

high. Using different points of evaluation for the simulation

time of release; and (4) a set of state-level fixed effects.

changes the predicted probabilities of rearrest, but the

Some additional variables, which were initially included in

qualitative message about benefits for certain persons with

our models, were dropped from the analysis because they

these characteristics does not change.

were insignificant. Additionally, to allow the effects of
supervision status at time of release to vary across indi-

It is important to note that we do not estimate separate

viduals and communities, we included a set of interaction

models for each combination of characteristics. Instead,

terms.

the multivariate analysis uses all of these characteristics
in one model simultaneously, while allowing prediction of

Our resource deprivation index (an empirically defined

the relevant probabilities under various hypothetical sce-

index) was created from four county-level measures

narios, that is, using various combinations of these charac-

obtained from the Census Bureau that were combined

teristics. More detailed discussion of the regressions and

using factor analysis. The four measures included in the

simulations will be available from the authors in a forth-

final score are (1) proportion of all households headed by

coming technical report.

10

while the rearrest rate for discretionary parolees was
four percentage points lower (57 percent; table 3).25
It is notable that mandatory parolees, who account for
the largest share of released prisoners, fare no better with
supervision than similar prisoners released without
supervision. While discretionary parolees are less likely to
be rearrested, this difference is relatively small consider-

ing that discretionary parolees were selected for release
based not only on their criminal histories (for which our
model controlled) but also on individual attitude, motivation, and preparedness (which the parole boards took
into consideration but could not be controlled for in our
model). One would expect that discretionary parolees are
better positioned to succeed than the rest of the released
prisoner population because they have met the parole
board’s selection criteria. Accordingly, supervision may
not be the chief reason for this difference in outcomes.

TABLE 3. Predicted Probability of Rearrest Two Years after
Release, by Supervision Status at 1994 Release
Unconditional Mandatory Discretionary
releasees (%) parolees (%) parolees (%)

OVERALL

61

61

57

Male

60

62

58

Female

67

51

51

Black

68

67

61

Non-black

54

56

53

Low release age

61

60

57

Medium release age

62

62

58

High release age

52

53

48

Few prior arrests

53

49

44

Medium prior arrests

59

57

52

High prior arrests

68

70

66

Violent offense

55

56

55

Property offense

68

67

62

Drug offense

56

61

54

offense

65

57

55

New sentence

56

58

54

59

62

53

71

68

63

59

61

56

61

61

57

FOR WHOM DOES SUPERVISION
MATTER MOST?
While the modeling revealed small overall differences in
rearrest outcomes based on supervision status, certain
subgroups were predicted to have substantial reductions
in recidivism when supervised. For example, holding all
other characteristics constant, the predicted probability
of rearrest for a discretionary parolee with few prior
arrests was nine percentage points lower than for an
unconditional releasee with a similar criminal history,
and five percentage points lower than for a mandatory
parolee (table 3). The likelihood of rearrest for a discretionary parolee who had been serving time for a
technical violation was eight percentage points lower
than for a similar unconditional releasee, and five percentage points lower than for a mandatory parolee.

Public order and other

Revocation + new
sentence
Revocation (technical)
Low resource
deprivation
Medium resource
deprivation
High resource
deprivation

62

62

58

Source: Urban Institute analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics data. See
“Methodology” sidebar for definitions of characteristics.

The impact of supervision seems to differ based on the
offense type. Notably, only parolees incarcerated for public order or other offenses were predicted to have lower
rearrest rates—eight to ten percentage points lower—
than their unconditional release counterparts. We discuss findings by offense type in more detail below, in the
section “How Does Supervision Affect the Largest
Release Groups?”
The most sizable difference in outcomes was for females:
the predicted probability of rearrest for a female parolee
(discretionary and mandatory) was 16 percentage points
lower than for a female released unconditionally.

11

We took this analysis a step further by combining all of
the factors included in the modeling to predict the probabilities of rearrest for mandatory and discretionary
parolees and unconditional releasees with each combination of characteristics. For example, we estimated rearrest outcomes by supervision status for a young, black
male with few prior arrests who is a new court commitment for a drug offense and returned to an area with
high resource deprivation. By comparing the differences
in predicted rearrest rates for each combination of characteristics, we were able to gauge the effect of supervision
status on different groups of releasees—that is, to statistically address the question “For whom does supervision
matter most?”
Some combinations of characteristics yielded very high
benefits from supervision. In other words, their expected
rearrest rates were significantly lower when released to
supervision than unconditionally released without it.
Other groups, by contrast, yielded small or even negative
effects from supervision. However, very few people
released in 1994 had the combinations of characteristics
that were expected to achieve the highest—or lowest—
benefits from supervision. In fact, the typical releasee
yielded small, if any, gains from supervision. In this section, we describe the characteristics of the highest and
lowest benefiting groups, then turn to a description of
predicted rearrest rates by supervision status for the
largest shares of released prisoners.
Who Might Benefit from Supervision the Most?
The predicted probability of rearrest for some male discretionary parolees was as much as 20 percentage points
lower than that of male unconditional releasees with the
same characteristics. These “high-benefiting” males
tended to be black, had few prior arrests, were serving
time for parole or probation revocations, and were convicted of “other” offenses—mostly public order offenses.
Conducting the same analyses for females showed similar patterns, with some female discretionary parolees
having predicted rearrest rates as much as 34 percentage

points lower than their unconditional counterparts. No
patterns were evident among high-benefiting males or
females with regard to age or resource deprivation in the
communities to which they returned. Repeating the
analysis for males and females to compare mandatory
parolees with unconditional releasees showed a similar
set of characteristics among the highest benefiting
groups, although the race trend was not as strong and the
potential reduction in rearrest rates was not as high. In
sum, those who appear to benefit most from supervision
are low-risk, low-level offenders, who account for small
shares of the overall release cohort. These individuals are
possibly more responsive to the sanctions and services
provided by supervision, given their minimal prior
involvements with the justice system.

Who Might Benefit from Supervision the Least?
Some male discretionary parolees achieved little to no
benefit from supervision in terms of recidivism outcomes. These males tended to be white, had high numbers of prior arrests, were serving time for new court
commitments, and were convicted of violent or drug
offenses. In fact, some males with these characteristics
had a predicted probability of rearrest roughly equal to
or as much as 10 percentage points higher than unconditional releasees with the same characteristics. The female
discretionary parolees who benefited least from supervision were similar to their male counterparts, although
no female discretionary parolees had higher rearrest rates
than their unconditional counterparts. As with the highest benefiting groups, no patterns emerged for age or
resource deprivation in the communities to which the
lowest benefiting individuals returned. Comparing
mandatory parolees with unconditional releasees
revealed those lowest benefiting individuals to also be
white, have high numbers of prior arrests, have been
serving time for new court commitments, and have been
convicted of violent or drug offenses, although the
potential negative impact of supervision on males was
greater than for females. These results indicate that some
of the higher rate, more serious offenders may in fact

12

benefit the least from supervision. It may be that these
individuals, who have extensive and serious criminal histories, are immune to the deterrent effect of supervision
and unthreatened by the possibility of reincarceration.
How Does Supervision Affect the
Largest Release Groups?
The highest and lowest benefiting groups described
above account for very small shares of the total release
population. Conversely, male drug, property, and violent
offenders together account for over 80 percent of the
release cohort in 1994. We therefore sought to address
whether those individuals who account for sizable shares
of the population released from prison are predicted to
have lower rearrest rates when supervised after release. In
short, supervision impacts rearrest outcomes differently
based on the incarcerating offense type.
Specifically, supervision does not play much of a role
among those incarcerated for a violent offense (roughly
one-fifth of the released population). Even within this
group, when assessing the effects that supervision has on
subgroups based on age and gender, we find little evidence of differences in the predicted probability of rearrest based on the three release mechanisms analyzed
here. Discretionary parole does seem to benefit property
offenders (roughly one-third of the released population),
although predicted rearrest rates for mandatory parolees
are virtually the same as for unconditional releasees.
On the other hand, the predicted rearrest rates for drug
offenders are the same for discretionary parolees and
unconditional releasees, while mandatory parolees actually have higher rearrest rates than the other two groups
(table 4). Mandatory parolees may have higher rearrest
rates because, unlike their discretionary counterparts,
they are a higher-risk population; unlike the unconditional releasees, they are subject to heightened surveillance, which may include frequent drug testing.
In sum, for the largest release groups, supervision is associated with lower rearrest rates only among property

offenders released via discretionary parole. Among drug
offenders, mandatory release actually predicts higher
rearrest outcomes.

WHEN DOES SUPERVISION
MATTER MOST?
According to the BJS recidivism study, among all prisoners who recidivated within three years of release, nearly
two-thirds recidivated in the first year. In our sample,
unconditional releasees were, on average, rearrested the
earliest (9.9 months)—about half a month before
mandatory parolees (10.4 months) and a month and
a half before discretionary parolees (11.5 months).
However, the likelihood of rearrest for each release
group changed over time. Controlling for all other
characteristics, discretionary parolees had a 24 percent
likelihood of being rearrested in the first six months after
release, compared with 27 percent of both mandatory
parolees and unconditional releasees. Discretionary
parolees who had not been rearrested in the first six
months after release (“survivors”) were less likely to be
rearrested in the next six months to one year after release
than mandatory parolees and unconditional releasees.
Between 18 and 24 months after release, the likelihood of
rearrest for survivors was roughly equivalent among all
three groups (figure 4).
It is possible that these findings reflect the fact that persons released to supervision were not necessarily supervised throughout the follow-up period. Since data on
the length of supervision for our sample were not available, we chose to measure outcomes at two years after
release—the average length of supervision nationally at
that time. Over time, however, fewer and fewer people
may have been on supervision, and by the end of the
two years, individuals in the study may have had similar
supervision statuses and therefore similar recidivism
rates. In sum, while discretionary parolees were less likely
to be rearrested initially, the benefits of (discretionary)
supervised release dropped systematically over time.

13

TABLE 4. Predicted Probability of Rearrest Two Years after Release for Largest Release Groups, by Supervision Status at 1994 Release
Predicted probability of rearrest (%)
Share of 1994
release cohort (%)

Unconditional releasees

Mandatory parolees

Discretionary parolees

Young males

11.7

68

67

62

Medium males

8.5

68

68

63

10.5

59

60

53

10.7

55

61

54

Property offenders

Older males
Drug offenders
Young males
Medium males

8.0

55

62

55

Older males

9.7

45

54

45

Young males

8.5

55

56

56

Medium males

5.4

55

58

57

Older males

7.4

45

49

47

Violent offenders

Source: Urban Institute analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics data. See “Methodology” sidebar for definitions of age groupings.

CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS
FIGURE 4. Probability of Rearrest, by Supervision Status
at Release
Percent
30

25

20

Mandatory
parolees

Discretionary
parolees

15
Unconditional
releases

10

5

We originally hypothesized that prisoners released to
supervision would recidivate at lower rates than prisoners released without supervision. We expected lower
rearrest rates because of the characteristics of supervised
releases (on average, lower risk than unsupervised
releases) and the presumed deterrent effect of supervision. Our findings did confirm that certain parolees—
those released by a parole board or other authority—had
criminal histories indicating a lower risk. Mandatory
parolees, on the other hand, are more similar to unconditional releasees than to discretionary parolees. Upon
reflection, this similarity is not surprising given that
mandatory parolees and unconditional releasees are
both released from prison on a predetermined date,
without any form of screening to determine readiness
for release.

0
0–6
months

7–12
months

13–18
months

19–24
months

Source: Urban Institute analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

Our recidivism findings also differed from our original
hypothesis. On the whole, discretionary parolees were

14

STATE VARIATION
While this research brief focuses on national-level trends,

TABLE 5. Share of Prisoners Released Conditionally and
Unconditionally in 1994, by State

it is important to note that the use, duration, and intensity
of postrelease supervision varies significantly across
states.1 While postprison supervision is implemented
differently across states, it generally involves a set of
conditions such as abstinence from drugs, maintaining
employment, observing curfews, and staying away from cer-

State

Arizona
California
Florida

Unconditional Mandatory Discretionary
releasees (%) parolees (%) parolees (%)

16

1

2

97

83
1

22

1

77

Illinois

2

98

0

tain high-risk places and persons. Enforcement of those

Maryland

9

49

42

conditions may include home visits, drug testing, electronic

Michigan

9

0

91

monitoring, and even Global Positioning System satellites,

Minnesota

2

77

21

where individuals’ movements are tracked 24 hours a day.

New Jersey

22

0

78

5

13

82

3

59

38

39

0

61

New York
The share of prisoners released to parole supervision

North Carolina

varies considerably by state as well. In Ohio, more than

Ohio

one-third of the prisoners released in 1994 were not sub-

Oregon

0

35

65

ject to any postprison supervision. By contrast, in Illinois

Texas

2

40

58

Virginia

3

53

44

nearly all prisoners were released to supervision following
mandatory release (table 5). In most states, the conditions
of supervision are similar for both discretionary and

Source: Urban Institute analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics data.
These statistics exclude the category of releases called
“transfer/other.”

mandatory parolees, although the length of time on supervision often varies (on average, discretionary releases
spend more time on supervision than mandatory
releases2). In Maryland, for example, the average time
on supervision for a prisoner released by a parole board
in 1994 was almost three years (35 months). By contrast,
prisoners released to supervision by mandatory release
were supervised in the community for less than a year on
average (9 months).3 In other states, the supervision
period for both types of parolees is similar.

sons released to supervision have more extensive criminal
histories than their unsupervised counterparts and may be
more likely to recidivate as a result. Other states have different policies, which result in the highest risk prisoners as
the most likely to serve their full sentence behind bars.
Note that many states have undergone substantial changes
in their release policies and supervision practices since
1994, which may alter the current distribution of releasees

Recidivism outcomes for the various types of releasees

by supervision type and affect recidivism rates.

also vary by state. In about two-thirds of the states included
in the study, discretionary parolees are less likely to be
rearrested than either unconditional releasees or mandatory

1

Anne Piehl and Stefan LoBuglio. Forthcoming. “Does Supervision
Matter?” In Prisoner Reentry and Crime in America, edited by Jeremy
Travis and Christy Visher. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

parolees. In other states, the outcomes are reversed, with
2

least likely to be rearrested. These differences in outcomes

Timothy Hughes, Doris Wilson, and Allen Beck. 2001. “Trends in State
Parole, 1990–2000.” Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

are likely due, at least in part, to variations in state policies

3

either mandatory parolees or unconditional releasees being

on who is supervised after release. In some states, per-

Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services,
Office of Planning and Statistics.

15

less likely to be rearrested than unconditional releasees in
the two years after release, but the rearrest rates for
mandatory parolees and unconditional releasees were
very similar. When we expanded our analysis to isolate
the effect of supervision on rearrest, independent of
demographic characteristics and known risk factors such
as criminal histories, the difference in rearrest rates
decreased even further: the predicted probability of rearrest for mandatory parolees and unconditional
releasees was identical at 61 percent, while the probability of rearrest for discretionary parolees was only 4 percentage points lower at 57 percent. In other words,
mandatory parolees, who represent the largest share of
released prisoners, are no better off in terms of rearrests
than prisoners released without supervision. Those
screened by a parole board are less likely to be rearrested,
but the difference was relatively small, particularly given
that parole boards selected these individuals as low-risk
candidates for release. Moreover, even this modest difference may be due to factors other than supervision,
given that parole boards base their decisions on such
factors as attitude, motivation, and preparedness for
release that our model cannot take into account.
The modest difference in overall rearrest rates should not
suggest that supervision had no effect on rearrests for anyone in any way at any time. For certain individuals—
including females, those with few prior arrests, public
order offenders, and technical violators—being released to
supervision, especially via discretionary release, predicted
rearrest rates as much as 16 percentage points lower than
rates observed with unconditional release. In addition,
persons with combinations of these characteristics (e.g.,
females with few prior arrests who were incarcerated for
a public order offense) who were released to supervision
were predicted to have even lower rearrest rates. On the
other hand, certain high-rate offenders—such as white
males with many prior arrests who were serving time for
new court commitments for violent or drug offenses—
received no benefit in terms of reduced rearrest rates from
supervision.26 In fact, some of these males had a higher

predicted probability of rearrest than similar individuals
released without supervision. Notably, few prisoners have
a combination of characteristics that yield either the highest or lowest benefits from supervision.
By contrast, the public safety impact of supervision is
minimal and often nonexistent among the largest shares
of the release cohort—male property, drug, and violent
offenders. Supervision does not appear to improve
recidivism outcomes for violent offenders or property
offenders released to mandatory parole. Rather, our
analysis shows that supervision is only associated with
lower rearrest rates among discretionary parolees who
had been incarcerated for a property offense. In fact, for
male drug offenders, mandatory release to supervision
predicts higher rearrest rates than for unconditional
releasees or discretionary parolees. These higher rates
may reflect the fact that mandatory parolees are a
higher-risk population than discretionary parolees
and face heightened surveillance (such as drug testing)
compared with unconditional releasees. In short,
while postprison supervision may have modest effects
on recidivism in some cases, it does not appear to
improve rearrest rates for the largest subsets of released prisoners.
It bears repeating that the nature of our analysis does not
allow for insights into whether certain types of supervision, such as neighborhood-based or case management
models, are more effective than others or whether there
are differences in outcomes across states. It is also unclear
how much rearrest outcomes are the result of policy
directives (e.g., a decision to watch more closely and
arrest more quickly) and not criminal activity alone. At
the same time, given our country’s heavy reliance on
parole to manage those released from prison, it is discouraging—although not wholly unexpected—to find
that the overall effect of supervision appears to be minimal. For years, parole experts have suspected that parole
supervision was ineffective although national data did not
exist to support those assumptions. At a 1998 meeting on

16

supervision sponsored by the Department of Justice,
experts described current probation and parole models in
a state of “dangerous opportunity,” lacking clarity in purpose as well as public and political credibility.27
More recently, reentry experts reached similar, if bolder,
conclusions. Jeremy Travis, preeminent scholar of prisoner reentry and current president of John Jay College
of Criminal Justice, has called for “an end to parole
as we know it.”28 Travis has conceptualized a new
approach to supervision, recommending innovative
incentives for early release and limited supervision conditions that would align with each prisoner’s needs and
risks.29 Martin F. Horn, commissioner of the New York
City Departments of Corrections and Probation and
former corrections secretary for Pennsylvania, has proposed abolishing parole altogether given the lack of evidence that it discourages criminal behavior. Instead of
parole, he recommends that released prisoners be provided with vouchers that can be used for transitional
services that they choose.30 Joan Petersilia, a professor
at the University of California, Irvine, and renowned
researcher on parole, has argued for the reinstitution31
and redesign of discretionary parole, relying more
heavily on risk assessment tools that predict a prisoner’s
likelihood of committing future crimes in making
release decisions.32
Prior research and discussion have suggested several
reasons why parole, as typically implemented, is not as
effective as it could be.33
Ⅲ

Parole supervision is, in fact, quite minimal in most
cases. Most parole officers manage large caseloads
(an average of 70 parolees apiece) and typically meet
with individuals for about 15 minutes once or twice a
month.34 Why would we expect such a small amount
of contact to make a large amount of difference?35
Parolees don’t: According to one study of parolees,
most report that their parole officer did not have a
major positive or negative impact on their postprison

behavior.36 Clearly parole supervision must be more
than occasional if it is to have an appreciable effect.
Ⅲ

Parole officers are often located far from the neighborhoods where parolees reside, and therefore lack
an understanding of the situational context that geographically oriented supervision could provide.
Similar to community policing, community-based
parole officers could get to know their neighborhood
resources and high-risk areas, and thus be in a better
position to meaningfully assist and sanction parolees
on their caseloads.37

Ⅲ

In most states, responses to violations are often inconsistent and inappropriate to the seriousness of the
infraction.38 Parolees may violate conditions without
being caught or may be caught several times but
receive nothing more than a warning, and then a
seemingly random violation results in their return
to prison for the remainder of their sentence.39 The
research literature suggests that to be effective, punishment should be immediate and predictable, with clear,
enforceable consequences for violations.40 Parole could
benefit from an array of intermediate sanctions to
employ in response to violations, as opposed to the
“all or nothing” approach often used today. Such an
overhaul in the parole violation and revocation
process could, ideally, enhance the deterrent effect of
supervision.

Ⅲ

In recent years, the parole function has shifted from a
service orientation to a surveillance-oriented, controlbased strategy centered on monitoring behavior,
detecting violations, and enforcing the rules.41 New
surveillance technologies such as drug testing, electronic monitoring, and Global Positioning System
satellites make it easier and more efficient to monitor
behavior than traditional casework.42 However, prior
studies indicate that surveillance alone will not invoke
change. Rather, a mix of appropriate43 treatment and
surveillance is needed to positively affect offender

17

Ⅲ

behavior.44 Importantly, the field’s major evaluation of
Intensive Supervision Programs found that supervision can effectively direct individuals to treatment and
community programming.45 This positive finding
should inform new efforts to improve parole.

vision strategies across the country. Given the diversity
of practice across the states as well as the experimentation around prisoner reentry currently under way, there
is a ripe opportunity to assess what is going on and learn
from the field.

It is also possible that the traditional approach to
parole supervision is conceptually ill-suited to reduce
recidivism among released prisoners. As currently
implemented, supervision either focuses on exprisoners’ risks, through a control model, or on their
needs, through a support model. Researchers Shadd
Maruna and Tom LeBel suggest that a strengths-based
approach that builds on an ex-prisoner’s positive
assets would be perceived as more legitimate by exoffenders and would be more effective in allowing
them to take responsibility and become part of the
community.46

It is important to note that despite disappointing findings and substantial criticism from corrections experts
and the public alike, few would recommend postprison
supervision be abandoned altogether. As is evident from
our study, prisoners released unconditionally are also
highly likely to reoffend upon release. Further, common
sense suggests that prisoners, especially the high-risk prisoners that supervision appears least likely to help, warrant some sort of structure—a mix of supervision and
support—after prison. As a nation, we face an opportunity to rethink, revise, and perhaps reinvent parole
supervision so that it is vastly better at producing public
safety outcomes and enhancing the odds of successful
reintegration for the more than 600,000 individuals
leaving prison each year. Without renewed efforts to
improve the public safety benefits of postprison supervision, our reliance on parole serves little purpose apart
from providing false comfort.

Looking Forward
Given this country’s large-scale investment in supervision—it is currently the most prevalent tool in managing
reentry—the topic warrants additional research attention and should be brought to the forefront of every policy discussion on the topic of prisoner reentry. It is
critical to understand not only why supervision does not
work as well as it should across the board, but also why
supervision does work for some groups and how similar
gains could be realized for larger subsets of the parole
caseload. Importantly, correctional leaders need analysis
that gets inside “the black box” and considers the different models of parole and their relationship to recidivism
outcomes. In addition, it is worth considering whether
any lessons from the discretionary release process
could be transferred to postrelease supervision.
That is, are there other ways to stimulate good behavior,
increase individual motivation, and better prepare a
greater share of prisoners prior to release? Moreover,
could incentives be put in place to enable individuals to
earn their way off of parole supervision? There should
also be more testing and evaluating of innovative super-

ENDNOTES
1

Bureau of Justice Statistics. Reentry Trends in the U.S. Available at:

http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/reentry/releases.htm.
2

See Joan Petersilia. 2003. When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and

Prisoner Reentry. New York: Oxford University Press; Edward Rhine.
1997. “Probation and Parole Supervision: In Need of a New Narrative.”
Corrections Management Quarterly 1(2): 71–75.
3

Lauren Glaze and Sera Palla. 2004. “Probation and Parole in the

United States, 2003.” Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin. Washington,
DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
4

Timothy Hughes, Doris Wilson, and Allen Beck. 2001. “Trends in

State Parole, 1990–2000.” Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report.
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. http://www.ojp.usdoj.
gov/bjs/pub/pdf/tsp00.pdf.

18

5
Ibid. The study also found that more than half of discretionary
parolees successfully complete their term of supervision compared
with one-third of mandatory parolees.

6
Patrick Langan and David Levin. 2002. “Recidivism of Prisoners
Released in 1994.” Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report.
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice
Programs.

7

Ibid.

8 In 2000, almost 20 percent of state prisoners—or 112,000 persons—
were released from state prisons without any postprison supervision.
See Hughes, Wilson, and Beck, “Trends in State Parole, 1990–2000.”

9
Ibid. Critics of discretionary release claim that abolishing parole
would both reduce disparities in length of time served and keep
inmates imprisoned for longer amounts of time. In fact, research has
shown that length of stay is actually longer in states that still utilize
discretionary parole.

10
Ibid. The percentages shown in figure 1 represent the shares of all
prisoners released each year who were released by these three methods.
The total pool of released prisoners also includes releases to probation,
commutations, and other unspecified releasees.

11

Ibid.

12

For more information see table 3.1 in Petersilia, When Prisoners
Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry
13

Hughes, Wilson, and Beck, “Trends in State Parole, 1990–2000.”

14 In fact, while uncommon, in states that have retained discretionary
parole, mandatory releasees may have been denied early release by a
parole board.

15

Hughes, Wilson, and Beck, “Trends in State Parole, 1990–2000.”

16 While unconditional releasees accounted for around 40 percent of
prisoners released during the first half of the 20th century, the percentage of prisoners released without supervision declined steadily until the
1980s. Between 1980 and the mid-1990s, the share of prisoners released
unconditionally fluctuated between 11 and 17 percent, and has risen
to just under 20 percent since then. Because of the growth in prison
releases over the century, the number of prisoners released unconditionally has continued to rise over time. Jeremy Travis and Sarah
Lawrence. 2002. Beyond the Prison Gates: The State of Parole in America.
Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. http://www.urban.org/
UploadedPDF/310583_Beyond_prison_gates.pdf.

17

It is worth noting that while the 15-state BJS sample represents twothirds of all prisoners released in 1994, the portion of prisoners released

unconditionally, estimated at 13 percent nationwide in 1994, is underrepresented. Jodi M. Brown, Darrell K. Gilliard, Tracy L. Snell, James J.
Stephan, and Doris James Wilson. 1996. Correctional Populations in the
United States, 1994. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice,
Bureau of Justice Statistics.
18 Data on the amount of time individuals in our sample actually
served under parole supervision were not available. We therefore
chose to measure outcomes at two years after release—the approximate time served on parole nationally in the 1990s (23 months in 1990;
26 months in 1999 per Hughes, Wilson, and Beck, “Trends in State
Parole, 1990–2000”).

19

For example, other studies have found that younger offenders, those
convicted of property offenses, and those with more extensive criminal
histories are more likely to reoffend. Langan and Levin, “Recidivism
of Prisoners Released in 1994”; Christy Visher, Vera Kachnowski,
Nancy G. La Vigne, and Jeremy Travis. 2004. “Baltimore Prisoners’
Experiences Returning Home.” Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.
http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=310946.
20

It is unsurprising that unconditional releasees serve longer terms in
prison given that—by definition—they are not released early like their
discretionary and mandatory counterparts, and therefore serve their
entire sentence in prison.
21

Langan and Levin, “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994.”
Note that we report recidivism outcomes for a two-year follow-up
period because it most closely represents the average length of time exprisoners are under supervision in the community, and is thus the best
point of comparison in assessing the impact of supervision on recidivism outcomes. In 1990, the average time served on parole was
23 months; in 1999, it was 26 months (Hughes, Wilson, and Beck,
“Trends in State Parole, 1990–2000”).
22
For more discussion, see Anne Piehl and Stefan LoBuglio. Forthcoming. “Does Supervision Matter?” In Prisoner Reentry and Crime in
America, edited by Jeremy Travis and Christy Visher. Cambridge, U.K.:
Cambridge University Press. Also see “Data Sources and Limitations”
sidebar.

23 In the two years after release, 38 percent of unconditional releasees
were reconvicted, as were 37 percent of mandatory parolees and 32 percent of discretionary parolees. Twenty percent of mandatory parolees
returned to prison for a new offense, as did 17 percent of unconditional
releasees and 15 percent of discretionary parolees.

24

As noted earlier, discretionary and mandatory parole supervision do
not differ from each other systematically across states.
25

Because California often influences the national trends so heavily, we
re-ran our model including all study states except California (and

19

Delaware, which was excluded from the entire analysis, as discussed in
the “Data Sources and Limitations” sidebar). The overall recidivism
findings change when California is excluded, but not dramatically: the
predicted probability of rearrest for unconditional releasees rises to
63 percent, compared with 60 percent for mandatory parolees and
56 percent for discretionary parolees.
26

This finding may seem at odds with the treatment literature, which
suggests that treatment is most effective when targeting the criminogenic needs of high-risk offenders. While our research suggests that
supervision benefits low-risk ex-prisoners more than their high-risk
counterparts (in terms of rearrest outcomes), our study does not speak
to the effect of treatment (or the mix of treatment and supervision) on
either high- or low-risk populations.
27

The focus group participants determined five possible outcomes for
the future of parole and probation, ranging from continuing the current state of affairs by “muddling along” to a model explicitly focused
on public safety. Walter Dickey and Michael Smith. 1998. Dangerous
Opportunity: Five Futures for Community Corrections. Washington, DC:
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. http://www.
ojp.usdoj.gov/probation/.

35

At the same time, research suggests that more intensive supervision

results in more violations, but not necessarily more public safety benefits. Joan Petersilia and Susan Turner. 1993. “Evaluating Intensive
Supervision Probation/Parole: Results from a Nationwide Experiment.” NIJ Research in Brief. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of
Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
36

Edward Zamble and Vernon Quinsey. 1997. The Criminal Recidivism

Process. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
37

Petersilia, When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry.

38

National Institute of Corrections. 2004. Parole Violations Revisited:

A Handbook on Strengthening Parole Practices for Public Safety and
Successful Transition to the Community. Washington, DC: U.S.
Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections. NIC 019833.
http://www.nicic.org/pubs/2004/019833.pdf.
39

Ibid.

40

Peggy Burke. 1997. Policy-Driven Responses to Probation and Parole

Violations. Silver Spring, MD: Center for Effective Public Policy.
41

Petersilia, When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry.

42

The intensive supervision literature indicates that when parolees are

28

Jeremy Travis. 2002. “Thoughts on the Future of Parole.” Remarks
delivered at the Vera Institute of Justice, New York, May 22. http://
www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/410521.pdf.

monitored more closely, they are caught more frequently, although the
public safety benefits are unclear. Petersilia and Turner, “Evaluating

29

Jeremy Travis. Forthcoming. But They All Come Back: Facing the
Challenges of Prisoner Reentry. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press.
30
Martin F. Horn. 2001. “Rethinking Sentencing.” Corrections Management Quarterly 5(3): 34–40.

Intensive Supervision Probation/Parole: Results from a Nationwide
Experiment.”
43

In-prison treatment interventions are most effective when programs

are matched to prisoners’ risks and needs, when they are well-managed,
and when the intervention is supported through postrelease super-

31

Reinstitution of discretionary parole would occur in the 16 states that
have abolished it.
32

vision. Gerald Gaes, Timothy Flanagan, Laurence Motiuk, and Lynn
Stewart. 1999. “Adult Correctional Treatment.” In Prisons, edited by
Michael Tonry and Joan Petersilia. Chicago: University of Chicago

Petersilia, When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry.

33
Some of the major issues and recommendations summarized here are
discussed in more detail in the Report of the Reentry Policy Council.
The report consists of policy statements and recommendations that
address the various dimensions of prisoner reentry. It also includes
examples of innovative parole strategies currently being implemented
around the country. The report reflects the broad consensus of the ReEntry Policy Council, a bi-partisan group of leading policymakers and
practitioners representing a broad spectrum of criminal justice, health,
housing, and employment systems. The Report of the Re-Entry Policy
Council is available at http://www.reentrypolicy.org.

Press.
44

Lawrence W. Sherman, Denise Gottfredson, Doris MacKenzie, John

Eck, Peter Reuter, and Shawn Bushway. 1998. “Preventing Crime:
What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising.” Research in Brief.
Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice. http://www.ncjrs.org/
works/.
45

Joan Petersilia. 1998. “A Decade of Experimenting with Intermediate

Sanctions: What Have We Learned?” Federal Probation 62(2): 3–9.
46

Shadd Maruna and Thomas P. LeBel. 2003. “Welcome Home?

Examining the ‘Reentry Court’ Concept from a Strength-based
34

Ibid.

Perspective.” Western Criminology Review 4(2): 91–107.

20

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The authors would like to thank several individuals
who contributed to this report. We are grateful to
Anne Piehl of the Kennedy School of Government;
Bill Sabol of the U.S. Government Accountability
Office; Joan Petersilia of the University of
California, Irvine; and Edward Rhine of the Ohio
Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for
methodological advice and valuable comments on
drafts of this report. From the Urban Institute’s

FOR FURTHER READING
Lattimore, Pamela, Susan Brumbaugh, Christy Visher,
Christine Lindquist, Laura Winterfield, Meghan Salas,
and Janine Zweig. 2004. “National Portrait of SVORI.”
Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. http://www.
urban.org/url.cfm?ID=1000692.
Lawrence, Sarah, and Jeremy Travis. 2004. “The New
Landscape of Imprisonment: Mapping America’s Prison
Expansion.” Research Report. Washington, DC: The
Urban Institute. http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?
ID=410994.
Lawrence, Sarah, Daniel Mears, Glenn Dubin, and
Jeremy Travis. 2002. “The Practice and Promise of
Prison Programming.” Research Report. Washington,
DC: The Urban Institute. http://www.urban.org/url.
cfm?ID=410493.
Lynch, James, and William Sabol. 2001. “Prisoner
Reentry in Perspective.” Crime Policy Report, vol. 3.
Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. http://www.
urban.org/url.cfm?ID=410213.
Solomon, Amy L., Kelly Dedel Johnson, Jeremy Travis,
and Elizabeth McBride. 2004. “From Prison to Work.”
Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. http://www.
urban.org/url.cfm?ID=411097.
Solomon, Amy L., Michelle Waul, Asheley Van Ness, and
Jeremy Travis. 2004. “Outside the Walls: A National
Snapshot of Community Reentry Programs.” Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. http://www.urban.
org/url.cfm?ID=410911.

Justice Policy Center, Christy Visher provided sage
advice throughout the life of the study; Nancy
La Vigne and Jeremy Travis gave us critical feedback at early stages of the project; and Elizabeth
McBride contributed her editorial talent on the
final drafts. This report was made possible
through the generous support of the JEHT
Foundation. We extend a special thanks to Scott
Bane for his substantive, important questions—
and his patience in waiting for the answers.

Travis, Jeremy, and Sarah Lawrence. 2002. “Beyond the
Prison Gates: The State of Parole in America.” Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. http://www.urban.
org/url.cfm?ID=310583.
Travis, Jeremy, Elizabeth M. Cincotta, and Amy L.
Solomon. 2003. “Families Left Behind: The Hidden
Costs of Incarceration and Reentry.” Washington, DC:
The Urban Institute. http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?
ID=310882.
Travis, Jeremy, Amy L. Solomon, and Michelle Waul.
2001. “From Prison to Home: The Dimensions and
Consequences of Prisoner Reentry.” Washington, DC:
The Urban Institute. http://www.urban.org/pdfs/from_
prison_to_home.pdf
Visher, Christy, Nancy La Vigne, and Jill Farrell. 2003.
“Illinois Prisoners’ Reflections on Returning Home.”
Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. http://www.
urban.org/url.cfm?ID=310846.
Visher, Christy, Vera Kachnowski, Nancy La Vigne, and
Jeremy Travis. 2004. “Baltimore Prisoners’ Experiences
Returning Home.” Washington, DC: The Urban
Institute. http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=310946.
To receive free monthly email updates on the research of the
Justice Policy Center, join the Center’s email distribution
list by sending an email to JPC@ui.urban.org.
The views expressed are those of the authors and should
not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its
funders.

 

 

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