Returns to Prison Vary Greatly By State

Observations

There are major differences in the numbers of people on parole and probation returned to prison when examining state data.

If the vast majority of those released from prison are rearrested, and fifty-five percent return to prison, and if most are violent or multi-repeat felony offenders, how can states be returning different numbers of people to prison from community supervision?

Author

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.

Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.

Article

After reading data on criminal justice statistics by state for over four decades, you notice similarities as to trend lines. Whether its crime or corrections or similar data, states seem to report analogous numbers or percentage increases or decreases.

In other words, what happens in Wyoming happens in New York. Needless to say, the numbers will different, but the trends over time will be similar.

So imagine my surprise when I reviewed a list of states returning offenders back to prison (after release) and saw considerable differences in the numbers.

Under the category of “2015 post-custody supervision violations,” which includes “all conditional release violators returned to prison from post-custody community supervision, including parole and probation, for either violations of conditions of release or for new crimes,” I found the following:

  • Texas returned 49,632 offenders to prison in 2015
  • California returned 4,046 offenders to prison in 2015
  • Massachusetts returned 211 offenders to prison in 2015
  • Florida returned 106 offenders to prison in 2015

Please see the chart below.

California has the largest prison system in the country with Texas second and Florida third. How can Texas return 49,632 offenders and California return only 4,046?

Florida and Massachusetts are also major incarcerators. How can they return such small numbers of offenders back to prison?

Some additional examples:

Washington returned 14,334

Pennsylvania returned 9,452

Illinois returned 8,975

Missouri returned 8,599

Kentucky returned 8,420

There are plenty of states in the 1,000 to 4,000 range with others providing smaller numbers that are congruent with the population size of the state (Connecticut, 809, New Hampshire, 783, Delaware, 684, Hawaii, 671, Montana, 578, Main, 437, Nebraska, 366, Wyoming, 187, Rhode Island, 99).

Is There an Alternative Explanation?

I contacted correctional systems in California, Florida and Massachusetts and asked why the post-custody supervision violations numbers were so low but received no answer by deadline.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics of the US Department of Justice did reply and suggested that the discrepancies may be definitional in nature: “…much of the discontinuity you are noting is due to state-specific sentencing statutes that cause re-admissions to be classified as new court commitments as opposed to returns from parole.”

Combined New Court Commitments and Post-Custody Supervision Violations

But what happens when you combine the two categories (new court commitments and post-custody supervision violations) thus eliminating definitional issues? We will exclude Massachusetts and focus on the three largest states.

Texas 49,632 new court commitments and 24,167 post-custody supervision violations, 73,799 total

California 30,744 new court commitments and 4,046 post-custody supervision violations, 34,790 total

Florida 29,667 new court commitments and 106 post-custody supervision violations, 29,733 total.

Thus we have a difference of about 40,000 people going or returning to the California or Florida correctional systems when compared to Texas.

California is the largest prison system in the country with Texas second and Florida third.

California, Texas and Florida lead the country in population. California is first, Texas is second and Florida is third.

Florida ranks 5th for rates of violent crime, Texas is 15th and California is 17th.

Thus the combination of new court commitments and post-custody supervision violations for the three largest states indicate that policy may be creating different results.

The Depopulation of the American Correctional System

If you look at recent headlines from Crime in America.Net, you will see that there have been considerable reductions as to the numbers of offenders processed by the American criminal justice system:

Jail Inmates Decrease by 93,000 Inmates-2,700,000 Fewer Admissions to Jails When Compared to Peak Years

US Prison Population Declined by 88,000-Most Are Violent Or Repeat Offenders

659,000 Fewer People Under Correctional Supervision-Big Drops in Jail-Probation-Prison Populations

All of this is happening at the same time when the vast majority of inmates released from prison are rearrested, see 77 Percent of Prisoners Arrested For Another Crime-Few Are Specialists. Fifty-five percent are reincarcerated after five years.

America is considered to have the highest number of incarcerated people in the world.

Note that the vast majority of crime is not reported to law enforcement (only 48 percent of violent crimes are reported) and two out of every five reported crimes result in an arrest. Thus the numbers of those recidivating are undercounts.

If the vast majority of those released from prison are rearrested, and fifty-five percent return to prison, and if most are violent or multi-repeat felony offenders, how can states be returning different numbers of people to prison from community supervision?

Correctional Policies Vary From State to State

We have repeatedly stated on this site that every governor in the country has had a conversation with their correctional administrators to keep correctional costs in check. Endless commentators suggest that American correctional costs are unsustainable.

Examples of state correctional policies can be seen here; Pew-Correctional Policies.

California is the prime example of policy change.  In the “Prisoners in 2012” report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics data showed that in the space of 2 years surrounding Public Safety Realignment (Supreme Court ruling mandating cuts in California’s prison population) the California Department of Correction went from admitting 62 percent of people to prison on parole violations (2010) down to 23 percent (2012). See Prisoners in 2012.

It’s interesting that Texas has been celebrated for its efforts to reduce incarceration and contact with the criminal justice system, but the state returns the most people to prison.

Advocates insist that the number incarcerated can be significantly cut without endangering public safety. This is happening at the same time that violent crime rates are increasing in the United States (increases for 2015 and the first six months of 2016) after two decades of mostly steady declines. Note, however, that states started their correctional policy efforts years before violent crime increased nationally.

When we write about parole and probation policy in Crime in America.Net, the most common comment from field agents via social media is that they are restrained from returning violators to prison.

We are aware that states are trying to maintain offenders in the community without revoking them to incarceration through intermediate sanctions (i.e., enhanced supervision efforts or programs).

For the sake of argument, this means that instead of being revoked after twenty technical violations or minor crimes, they now have a threshold of forty technical violations or minor crimes. Note that there are no state thresholds. States take action based on individual offender assessments. But multiple offender technical violations are common.

Most states have a 100-150 to one parole and probation supervision ratios (higher in many jurisdictions), which makes offender observation very difficult. Maintaining the offender in the community is considered by many in the correctional field to be a correct and ethical course of action for state budget economics and a wide variety of additional reasons.

Conclusion

Critics suggest that America incarcerates too many people, and something has to be done about that. Major advocacy and criminological groups are calling for substantial cuts to the prison population. The majority of criminal justice policy organizations advocate for considerable cuts to the American correctional population, up to fifty percent.

It’s not my intent to suggest that advocates for less incarceration are wrong. It’s my goal to examine the numbers, issues, and let others decide for themselves.

States are making a conscious effort to reduce the number of offenders incarcerated or returned to their correctional systems.

Critics suggest that this is happening regardless of their criminal history, current crimes or numbers of violations of their conditions of supervision.

Background

Postcustody conditional supervision includes violations of conditions of release or for new crimes.

The majority of offenders entering or leaving state prisons are either violent of have multiple arrests and convictions.

Most felony convictions in the United States do not result in a sentence to prison.

Post Custody Supervision as defined by the Bureau of Justice Statistics

Post-custody conditional supervision includes all conditional release violators returned to prison from post-custody community supervision, including parole and probation, for either violations of conditions of release or for new crimes.

Parole Defined by the Bureau of Justice Statistics

Parole refers to criminal offenders who are conditionally released from prison to serve the remaining portion of their sentence in the community. Prisoners may be released to parole by a parole board decision (discretionary release/discretionary parole), according to provisions of a statute (mandatory release/mandatory parole), through other types of post-custody conditional supervision, or as the result of a sentence to a term of supervised release. In the federal system, a term of supervised release is a sentence to a fixed period of supervision in the community that follows a sentence to a period of incarceration in federal prison, both of which are ordered at the time of sentencing by a federal judge. Parolees can have a number of different supervision statuses, including active supervision, which means they are required to regularly report to a parole authority in person, by mail, or by telephone. Some parolees may be on an inactive status, which means they are excluded from regularly reporting, and that could be due to a number of reasons. For instance, some may receive a reduction in supervision, possibly due to compliance or meeting all required conditions before the parole sentence terminates, and therefore may be moved from an active to inactive status. Other supervision statues include parolees who only have financial conditions remaining, have absconded, or who have active warrants. Parolees are also typically required to fulfill certain conditions and adhere to specific rules of conduct while in the community. Failure to comply with any of the conditions can result in a return to incarceration.

Source: Prisoners in 2015

 

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