New Report Offers Strategies to Reduce Recidivism Rates and Lower Prison Costs

Washington—More than 1 in 5 state inmates maxed out their prison terms and were released to their communities without any supervision in 2012, undermining efforts to reduce reoffending rates and improve public safety, according to a report released today by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

A wide range of laws and policies adopted in the 1980s and ’90s has resulted in a sharp increase in the rate at which inmates serve their full sentences behind bars, leaving no time at the end for parole or probation agencies to monitor their whereabouts and activities or help them transition back into society by providing substance abuse, mental health, or other intervention programs.

“There’s a broad consensus that public safety is best served when offenders have a period of supervision and services when they leave prison,” said Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s public safety performance project. “Yet the trend is toward releasing more and more inmates without any supervision or services whatsoever. Carving out a supervision period from the prison sentence can cut crime and corrections costs.”


Key findings of the report, Max Out: The Rise in Prison Inmates Released Without Supervision, include:

  • Between 1990 and 2012, the number of inmates who maxed out their sentences in prison grew 119 percent, from fewer than 50,000 to more than 100,000.
  • The max-out rate, the proportion of all prisoners released without receiving supervision, was more than 1 in 5, or 22 percent of all releases, in 2012.
  • Max-out rates vary widely by state: In Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Oregon, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, fewer than 10 percent of inmates were released without supervision in 2012. More than 40 percent of inmates maxed out their prison terms and were released without supervision in Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah.
  • As part of its omnibus 2011 Public Safety and Offender Accountability Act of 2011 (H.B. 463), Kentucky passed a mandatory reentry supervision policy requiring that inmates be released to supervision at least six months before their sentences expire if they have not been granted discretionary parole before then. An evaluation found that 4.2 percent of inmates with mandatory releases were returned to prison for a new crime within a year of release, compared with 6 percent of similar offenders released before the law.
  • In New Jersey, an analysis found that parolees were 36 percent less likely than those who maxed-out to return to prison for a new crime within three years of release, even when controlling for key recidivism risk factors.
  • Nonviolent offenders are driving the increase; 20 and 25 percent of drug and property offenders, respectively, were released without supervision in 2000, but those figures grew to 32 and 31 percent, or nearly 1 in 3, in 2011.

In the past few years, at least eight states—Kansas, Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia—adopted reforms to ensure that authorities can supervise all or most offenders after release from prison. These policies, most of which are too new to evaluate, typically carve out the supervision period from the prison sentence rather than add time for it after release. This allows states to reduce prison spending and reinvest some of the savings in stronger recidivism-reduction programs.

“The prevailing philosophy used to be that we just turn inmates loose at the prison gate with nothing more than a bus ticket and the clothes on their back,” Gelb said. “Now, policymakers on both sides of the aisle are starting to realize that if you’re serious about public safety, you need more effective strategies.”

These new policies are backed by data that indicate inmates released to supervision are less likely to commit new crimes than those who max out and return home without oversight. The experience of two states highlights the public safety value of reforms:

The report outlines a policy framework to guide state leaders in reducing max-outs and recidivism. It recommends that policies require post-prison supervision, carve out the community supervision period from prison terms, strengthen parole decision-making, tailor conditions to offenders’ risks and needs, adopt evidence-based practices, and reinvest savings in community corrections.

The report also highlights public opinion research that shows strong voter support for ensuring that inmates undergo post-prison supervision. When given a choice between nonviolent offenders serving a full three-year prison sentence or two years of a three-year sentence with one year of mandatory supervision, voters preferred the latter option, 69 to 25 percent. That result was consistent across party affiliations, geographic regions, and respondent demographics, including from households where someone had been a crime victim.