Doing time – outside prison

States can move more offenders into supervised programs while still protecting the public.

America's crowded prisons are budget busters for states trying to cinch their fiscal belts. One solution, not without risk or debate, is to put more offenders back on the street – under better supervision. A recent study suggests it would work to keep society safe and save money.

About two-thirds of current, convicted criminals – about 5 million, or 1 out of every 45 adults in the US – are already out of prison. They are either on probation for a crime not serious enough for incarceration or on parole after serving time behind bars. About 5 million such offenders are under community supervision today, up from just 1.6 million 25 years ago.

The cost of imprisonment versus supervision differs wildly. A prisoner costs state governments about $79 a day today – even more if prison-building costs are included. An offender on probation or parole costs an average $3 to $4 a day.

A report released March 2 by the Pew Center on the States says more offenders could safely be supervised outside prison walls. "States can carefully reduce incarceration and still protect – and even improve – public safety," it concludes.

New York State provides a case in point. "Between 1997 and 2007, New York experienced both the greatest decrease in violent crime and, simultaneously, the greatest decrease in prison population and incarceration rate of any state in the country," the report says. During that time the national incarceration rate jumped 14 percent while New York's shrank 15 percent. The state's violent crime rate dropped 40 percent in that period while the national violent crime rate reduced by only 24 percent.

Of course, prison doors can't simply be opened and offenders dumped on the streets. And no supervision program – no matter how well run – can guarantee no offender will ever commit another crime.

Releasing prisoners into today's difficult economy, where work may be hard to find, itself presents a challenge. That means states will need to redouble their efforts to provide support systems for those reentering society.

But new understanding of how to supervise offenders, tested in states around the country, is making these programs more and more successful. Sophisticated risk-assessment techniques can ensure that dangerous criminals stay under lock and key while moving those unlikely to commit violent crimes into supervised programs. Electronic monitors – a wrist or ankle bracelet – can keep a 24-hour watch on offenders: Some can even detect when they consume alcohol.

Those who break the rules – fail to report in, visit unapproved places, take drugs, etc. – must face swift, certain, and proportionate penalties, the study says. This is often not the case today. Offenders don't get attention until they have committed numerous, serious offenses requiring a return to prison. Quickly applying lesser sanctions, from curfews to a few days in a local jail, can prevent recidivism.

Alternatively, positive incentives can encourage good behavior. In Arizona, offenders on probation earn 20 days off their sentence for every month they avoid violating the terms of their supervision.

Meeting huge fiscal challenges requires creativity. Carefully monitoring offenders released into the community may provide an effective, if counterintuitive, solution.

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