Too early is too soon Lessons from the Montana Department of Corrections Early Release Program



K. A. Wright;J. W. Rosky


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Abbreviated Journal Title

Criminol. Public Policy


early release; offender reentry; prison crowding; recidivism; parole; Criminology & Penology


Early release procedures will likely become increasingly necessary during a time of fiscal uncertainty in corrections. To date, however, few empirical evaluations exist in the literature to guide correctional administrators in making these potentially unpopular decisions. The failure to appreciate fully the consequences of early release for the criminal justice system (as well as for the general public) could lead to unintended consequences in the form of increased costs and a potential decrease in public safety. The current study seeks to build on the limited information available by evaluating the effectiveness of releasing offenders early in Montana in an attempt to mitigate a budget deficit. The results indicate that offenders released early from a prison setting were more likely to recidivate (and to do so more quickly) than a matched group of offenders experiencing a traditional parole release from prison. Offenders released early from a community setting were somewhat less likely to recidivate than a matched group of offenders experiencing a traditional parole release from the community. Based on these findings, we assess three plausible explanations for our results: 1. A Reduced Deterrent Effect. A possible explanation for the relationship between early release and recidivism identifies a reduction in sentence length as leading to a weakened deterrent effect of criminal justice sanctions. Yet a sizeable body of literature questions the empirical support of deterrence theory in general, and this knowledge coincides with research that suggests that longer sentences produce little gain in terms of reduced recidivism from an incapacitation and a deterrence perspective. In our results, the early releasees from a community setting were less likely to recidivate than their traditional release from community counterparts-a finding that also is at odds with a reduced deterrent effect. Based on these considerations, we conclude that a reduced deterrent effect is unlikely to be responsible for the increased likelihood of recidivism for the early release from prison group. 2. A Shift in Burden Effect. A second explanation is that the early release of inmates can shift the burden of overcrowding unintentionally from an institutional setting to a community supervision setting. The unscheduled early release of offenders likely increases the caseloads of parole officers and may affect their overall job performance. In our results, we cannot determine definitively that adjustments were occurring without qualitative information from parole officers. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that the label of being an early release may have influenced the differences in technical violations across the four groups-specifically for those released early from prison, which may invoke a different response than those released early who were already in the community. Thus, whereas early release procedures may not influence recidivism rates directly through the commission of new criminal acts or violations of parole by those released early, it is possible that recidivism rates may increase because of adjustments made by parole officers. Based on these considerations, we conclude that a shift in burden effect remains a plausible explanation for our findings regarding the increased likelihood of recidivism by the early release from prison group. 3. A Failure to Prepare for Reentry Effect. A final consideration is that the early release of inmates from an institutional setting leaves them unprepared to successfully reintegrate back into society. Offenders released today are fundamentally different as compared to those in years past in that they have less programming available to them in prison and have fewer connections with community-based structures. The early release of inmates from prison is likely the epitome of instances in which prisoners are unaware of their discharge date and it is also likely that these offenders were thrust back into socie

Journal Title

Criminology & Public Policy





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