Criminology professor receives Mead Award.
In her lecture titled "Meeting the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry," drawn from her forthcoming book, When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry, published last month by Oxford University Press, Petersilia outlined the data surrounding prisoner release and re-entry and made recommendations for its, as well as parole's, reform.
Her address began by considering the importance of inmate re-entry. She noted that never before in U.S. history have so many individuals been released from prison. Nearly 600,000 people were released in 2002 and that number is expected to increase in future years, she said. Petersilia reminded the audience that 93 percent of all inmates eventually return home. Since offenders have always been released from prison, and corrections professionals have struggled with their reintegration, what is different today? Petersilia believes that there are three reasons that make the present situation different: the vast number of releasees, the more serious needs of parolees and fewer available rehabilitative programs.
In discussing how corrections helps and how it hinders, Petersilia made the following observations:
* As inmate needs have increased and in-prison programs decreased, parole supervision and services have also decreased for most released inmates.
* Higher-risk inmates are entering prisons, there are fewer programs and more idle time while in prison, and a greater number of inmates are being released from prison without the benefits and control of parole supervision.
* The expansion of legal barriers (employment restrictions, public assistance restrictions, etc.) has been accompanied by an increased ease in checking criminal records due to new technologies and expanded public access to criminal records via the Internet.
Petersilia summarized this portion of her address by stating that people are being sent to prison in greater numbers and there is now technology to assure that the "ex-con" label follows them for life. And once the label is applied, she noted, the chances of getting a job, securing housing and developing solid social relationships--the very things that help offenders succeed--are severely limited. Criminal justice policies may threaten the very society offenders' incarceration was meant to protect, she argued.
Turning her attention to how corrections professionals might address the problem of inmate reentry, Petersilia outlined the complex and multifaceted nature of the issue. In order to assist the nearly 7 million offenders returning to the community, it must be rethought which agencies should be involved. The development of broader partnerships that include other criminal justice agencies, but also human service agencies, nonprofit organizations, inmate self-help groups and faith-based programs, may hold the key to successful re-entry initiatives, she said.
In recent months, the federal government has shown some gratifying interest in inmate re-entry and funds have been made available to each state for re-entry programs. This interest, she noted, may serve to bring balance back to a correctional system that has become too punitive. According to Petersilia, there is a zone of consensus around inmate re-entry issues that may provide unique opportunities to corrections. She cautioned, however, that corrections' history of implementing programs designed to help offenders has a habit of ending up treating them more harshly. But being aware of this tendency should make corrections practitioners skeptical of quick fixes and encourage them to work harder at ensuring that the goals of the reentry initiatives meet the objectives determined for them.
In her book, Petersilia offers 12 major policy recommendations. For the purpose of her Mead lecture, she highlighted four of them. Building on the foundation laid by her research for the book, Petersilia discussed the following policy recommendations:
The need to reinvest in prison work, education and substance abuse programs. Today, she said, there is ample evidence that treatment programs can reduce recidivism if the programs are well-designed, well-implemented and targeted appropriately. Here, she cautioned, the devil is not in the principle, but in the details. Just as correctional researchers are able to demonstrate that certain programs can reduce recidivism, corrections departments are dismantling programs because of budget constraints.
Reconsider discretionary parole in states that have abolished it, and reverse the trend toward automatic mandatory release in the states that are moving in that direction. Petersilia's argument for this reconsideration relied on recent studies suggesting that having to earn and demonstrate readiness for release, and being supervised post-prison, may have some deterrent or rehabilitation benefits. Also, she noted, discretionary parole systems provide a means by which offenders who represent continuing public safety risks can be kept in prison. Discretionary parole can also serve to keep correctional staff and budgets focused on planning for release, she said.
Consideration to front-loading post-prison services during the first six months after release. Petersilia noted that recidivism research demonstrates that returning to crime happens quickly--nearly one-third of rearrests for serious crimes occur within the first six months after release. Recidivism, however, she said, declines quite dramatically after three years, and after five years of arrest-free behavior, the recidivism rate is quite low. The economic and human value of investing in parolee assistance during the first six months makes good policy sense.
The need to establish procedures by which some offenders can put their criminal offending behind them. Petersilia noted that the United States has the highest incarceration rate of industrial democracies, yet, unlike all other democracies, it has virtually no practical means of sealing or expunging adult criminal records. Offenders who have lived offense-free for a significant period are caught up in current legal barriers and prohibitions that hinder them from establishing themselves in the community. This is not an argument for liberalization but for a targeted approach to the specifically qualified offenders who have demonstrated the ability to conform to community norms.
In concluding the Mead lecture, Petersilia expressed the hope that action on these reforms might help create a more finely tailored system. Those who are dangerous and a threat to community safety will remain in prison and those who are not will be able, by their own efforts and those of community corrections, to re-establish themselves as contributing community members. Community corrections faces, she said, enormous challenges in managing the re-entry of increasing numbers of offenders. But, Petersilia noted, the community corrections field must focus its attention on offenders coming home, not necessarily because it will be good for them, but because it will be good for their children, their neighbors and the community.
Petersilia's Mead lecture was timely and encouraging to ICCA members, who, for nearly 40 years, have been providing re-entry services to offenders.
Donald G. Evans is president of the Canadian Training Institute in Toronto and is Board of Governors representative to the Executive Committee for the American Correctional Association.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Probation and Parole Forum; Joan Petersilia|
|Author:||Evans, Donald G.|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2003|
|Previous Article:||Making prisons safer through technology.|
|Next Article:||Overview: Corrections professionals discuss "solving problems today for a better tomorrow".|