10.5. Current Issues: The Revolving Door

David Carter

Reentry and the Revolving Door

Parole, as discussed in passed chapter, has had mixed success. Overall, the effectiveness of parole hovers around 50% nationwide – meaning that roughly 50% of parolees are sent back to prison to complete their sentences. It is estimated that somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000 individuals are on parole in any given year, with several hundred thousand exiting each year. This brings up questions about what happens to these individuals – do they remain in the community after completing their sentence…or do they return to prison like their less successful parole counterparts?

The reality is that many of them will be rearrested. In one of the most comprehensive studies on reentry outcomes, Alper, Durose, and Markman (2018) tracked the recidivism rate of individuals over a 9-year follow-up period. What they found was that rearrest occurred for about 70% in the first three years, and by year 9, 83% of the individuals released has been rearrested. Many of these individuals return to prison, giving rise to the concept of the “revolving door” of justice. These statistics reflect poorly on the long-term effects of incarceration, as well as the reentry programs available to support individuals leaving prison. In order to be more successful, individuals returning to society need assistance to get back on their feet – and stay on their feet. Such assistance includes education and vocational training, employment assistance to get a job, legal services, information on public benefits, and housing connections. Interestingly, it appears as though many of these “reentry needs” here are the same as the “criminogenic needs” that landed individuals in the justice system initially. [1] Unfortunately, it appears as though such needs are not being addressed while individuals are incarcerated, creating a cycle of “release and catch.”

Many social circumstances and policies compound the challenges offenders face upon release. Over the last 40 years, there has been an overwhelming push to include items on employment applications that ask about prior criminal history. If an individual responds truthfully, their applications may be overlooked or discarded (an act of illegal discrimination, in fact.) Moreover, gaps in ex-offenders career history and education may undermine their attempts at gainful employment after incarceration, a reality has become even starker in the U.S. “knowledge economy.” Discrimination against ex-offenders is also rampant in housing applications, which similarly inquire about criminal history. If an individuals reports prior arrests, their applications may be placed at the bottom of the pile. We might further note the ways in which barriers to housing and employment for ex-offenders are mutually reinforcing; it is hard for an individual without stable housing to hold down a job, while someone without a regular income may struggle to pay for housing. Combined, these barriers to reentry call into question when an ex-offenders sentence has been “served,” if consequences continue well beyond the period of formal correctional control. The informal discrimination faced by offenders after release is sometimes labelled as the “collateral consequences” of punishment.

Future Outlook of Corrections

Given the “revolving door” presented above,  the problems facing corrections (overcrowding, violence) are not likely to go away anytime soon. Even as crime has decreased dramatically, the U.S. has seen an increase in the overall correctional population for decades. While there has been some reduction in prison populations recently, these changes are unlikely to hold unless other changes are made. Notably, the functions of community corrections need to be better supported, and follow evidence-based practices, if individuals are expected to stay out of prison. Without such support, the prison population is likely to increase once again, due to the eventual return of too many “failures” in community corrections. Most offenders are in need of some basic assistance to get themselves back to a functioning level in society, including help with education, substance use, employment, and general and mental health. Otherwise, the 6 million individuals in all forms of correctional control can quickly turn into 8 million.

  1. Alper, M., Durose, M. R., & Markman, J. (2018). Update on prisoner recidivism: A 9-year follow-up period (2005-2014). U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice Statistics. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/18upr9yfup0514.pdf


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Introduction to the U.S. Criminal Justice System Copyright © 2019 by David Carter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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