Study points to need for parole reform in N.J.


by Andy McNeil

New Jersey inmates released to early parole cost the prison system fewer tax dollars and are less likely to commit new crimes.

But a recent study from The Pew Charitable Trusts found they end up back behind bars at nearly the same rate as those who serve full sentences.

The research shows technical revocations due to issues such as missed meetings or failed drug tests are partially to blame.

According to the study, parolees are 36 percent less likely to return to prison for new crimes within three years of release.

The figure drops to 14 percent when adjusting for factors such as the fact those who serve full sentences tend to be higher-risk offenders.

When parole revocations are added to new crimes, the rates of return to prison are nearly the same for both groups — 38 percent for parolees and 39 percent for those serving full sentences. The average annual cost per inmate in New Jersey is $54,865, according to a 2012 Vera Institute of Justice study.

Considering the cost of supervised parole generally is one-tenth that of imprisonment, according to the study, the return rate among the approximately 6,000 parolees annually released from prison raises questions about how the programs are handled.

“Does it make sense to put that person back in jail or does it make more sense to try and find another way of dealing with that problem?” asked Camden County Jail Warden Eric Taylor.

“There are less expensive alternatives than sending parolees back to prison.”

As an example, he cited drug treatment programs as a more cost-effective option than prison for parolees who fail a drug test.

Taylor, the former chief at New York City’s Department of Corrections, said parole supervision ideally should go hand in hand with other strategies to reintegrate former inmates into society.

He noted re-entry programs — such as job training — are needed to “better equip that person for life back outside of the box.

“Too many people want to use jails as a way of isolation and punishment, versus change the behavior of the people who are in jail. I say let’s try to change their behavior.”

Taylor pointed out those serving full sentences are released without any supervision, creating a revolving door that costs more in the end.

“There’s nothing to control you, really, after you leave, so you’re going right back to what you were doing before,” he explained.

Taylor acknowledged there will be those who don’t meet expectations, but called on policy makers to find ways of keeping former inmates from returning to prison.

Ryan King, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, said officials “need to develop additional strategies that hold offenders accountable for violations without returning to expensive prison cells” in order for parole to be cost effective.

But not all types of parole are created equal, he noted.

“It really is … quite a bit different from state to state in terms of how parole is operated, including some states where parole, for all intents and purposes, is largely abolished.”

King said the study — released last Monday — is a “first-of-its-kind” for Pew, noting it’s often difficult to get access to the wealth of data used for the project.

The analysis was conducted by Rutgers University professor Michael Ostermann and focused on whether inmates released in 2008 returned within three years.

Ostermann could not be reached for comment.

Overall, the study found the state’s recidivism rates are on the decline.

Thirty percent of inmates released in 2008 were reincarcerated, compared with 38 percent four years prior.

King said he hopes the study will be used as a road map by policymakers nationwide.