In July 23, 2007, two felons recently released from prison robbed and torched a Connecticut doctor’s house, holding hostage, sexually assaulting, and eventually killing his wife and two daughters. The distraught husband and father survived. Two weeks later, in Newark, New Jersey, a group of young thugs, led by a released felon with another case pending against him, took the lives of three college-bound youths in what has been described as an execution-style murder. A fourth youth survived despite suffering a gunshot wound to her head.
These crimes, though more brutal than the norm, nonetheless dramatize an enormous problem facing state and local officials throughout the country: what to do about the fact that almost two million offenders will be released from prison in the next three years. Nearly two-thirds of those released will be rearrested within three years, many of them the beneficiaries of early release policies, and many of the arrests will occur within just six months of their release.
The two Connecticut marauders, repeat offenders, were on parole when they attacked, and had been through a drug-treatment center as well as a halfway house to which they had been assigned, after screening, by the Connecticut Department of Correction. In the case of these two, it is difficult to argue that anything but their continued incarceration could have saved the lives of the Hawke-Petit family. But it is equally difficult to judge alternatives to punishment as failures when ex-offenders are lacking employment, training, mentors, and networks of supporters who can facilitate their reentry into civil society.
Substantial research on offender characteristics might help predict the level of threat an individual poses or his chances of recidivating, including single marital status, unemployment, and a history of drug abuse. Yet judges and parole boards mostly avoid weighing these characteristics when they are sentencing a particular defendant. One of the authors, a former prosecutor, recalls the complaints he heard from legal and ethics scholars when he used empirical research to help him decide which persons to charge as career criminals.
At the same time, the impact of individual characteristics can be strongly affected by external factors. As Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice (part of CUNY) and the author of a pioneering study of prisoner reentry, has written: “Risk is not a static attribute of a particular offender; rather, an offender’s environment, including prospective guardians and opportunities for re-offending, influences his propensity to make unwise choices.” According to Travis, environmental or community factors that affect reintegration include:
- shortage of public housing
- child-support payments
- gang activity (in and out of prison)
- social characteristics of neighborhoods § restrictions on where ex-offenders can work and limited job prospects
- no savings and no immediate entitlement to unemployment benefits
In short, predicting future behavior, difficult in its own right, should not be attempted in a vacuum. Evidence shows that involving neighbors, peers, and employers in the reintegration of ex-offenders, assisted by organizations that are both faith-based and secular, for-profit and not-for-profit, can make a large difference. Our site visits and reviews of the literature certainly support this conclusion. We came across many programs and individuals that helped ex-offenders become productive citizens.
Unfortunately, most state penal and judicial officials are not working with or sponsoring effective reentry programs. Instead, they approach this looming public safety disaster without a clear mission, quantitative measures of success, or evidence-based decision making. In addition, officials generally do not direct public expenditures to where they might make the greatest difference. For example, offenders likely to succeed on release do not need intensive programs, yet they are enrolled in them; and offenders judged likely to commit a serious crime upon release—no matter the intervention—should not be released, yet they are.
These things happen in part because there is no criminal-justice system as such, but only assortments of officials in every state who make decisions like the above on the basis of their own tolerance for risk rather than a general understanding of the requirements for community safety. Yet the reality is that each decision— the arrest, charge, length of sentence, prison policies, and release decision—affects all the others.