Keeping parolees out of jail

The average annual cost of housing an inmate in the United States is more than $30,000 – which is eight to 10 times more expensive than supervising a parolee. Developing programs to reduce recidivism helps former inmates successfully reintegrate into society, but also saves taxpayers huge amounts of money.

Dr. Brett Garland, head of the department of criminology and criminal justice at Missouri State University, has been studying the criminal justice system for over a dozen years. He’s published more than 40 journal articles, book chapters and other scholarly works, mostly on topics pertaining to correctional issues.

One primary area of research for Garland is prisoner re-entry. That’s the phase from a few months before a prisoner is released to a few months after release.

“That’s the time period where offenders are really starting to transition mentally; they’re getting themselves ready for the release,” he said.

Which is better? The carrot or the stick?

A study Garland did with co-authors Dr. Eric Wodahl and Dr. Scott Culhane from the University of Wyoming and Dr. William McCarty from the University of Illinois at Chicago found that offenders are most successful in following the terms of their parole when a combination of sanctions and rewards are used.

“We know from psychology and from behavioral learning theory that rewarding people for things they do right is even more important than punishing people for something they do wrong. Our study confirmed that this principle holds true for criminal offenders,” said Garland. “In the last decade or so, there’s been renewed attention to incorporating incentives and using a true behavioral model when monitoring people who are on probation and parole.”

Garland has collaborated with Wodahl on a number of projects. Wodahl is a former probation and parole officer and said he thinks this research can help supervision officers do their jobs more effectively.

“I believe this research has the capacity to help lessen our reliance on prison in this country,” he said. “A large portion of prison inmates are incarcerated for violating the conditions of their probation or parole supervision. The use of sanctions and incentives has been shown to lead to fewer revocations and fewer people being sentenced to prison.”

Garland said to gain maximum compliance from a probationer or a parolee, officers must be committed to utilizing reinforcements whenever suitable opportunities arise.

Components of re-entry programs

Time off is best incentive

Another study by Garland and Wodahl, in Colorado, examined the value that offenders ascribe to various types of incentives relevant to probation.

The researchers interviewed 200 offenders and presented 16 options, including monetary incentives, reductions in supervision time and travel opportunities, among others.

“The perceived effect from the offender’s standpoint was that getting time off of a sentence was more important to them and therefore more valuable than all other options,” said Garland. “The policy implication here is that you don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money to provide good incentives for offenders.”

As the cost to incarcerate a person continues to increase, finding ways to keep people out of prison may be the best solution. Garland hopes his work will help do just that.


3 Responses
  • Wanda Reply

    Returning to prison after release is higher when employers won’t hire ex-felons. If they have a skill or trade starting a business is expensive, requires money and support. In spite of having employable skills, companies will not hire them if they fail a background check.
    An acquaintance has been out of work for several years from a felony convicition 14 years ago. He has a trade, aces interviews, but then after the background check they will not hire him.

    What can these individuals do to find work, particulary in the Kansas City area? How can employers be encouraged to give second chances?

    • Brett Garland Reply

      You can look into the Federal Bonding Program through the Missouri Department of Economic Development. This program offers insurance to certain employers should an employee commit theft on the job. Ultimately I believe it will depend if the employer is interested in requesting this protection.

      Also, ex-offenders might qualify as an “at risk” group for the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. This would provide a monetary-based incentive for an employer to hire someone who had committed a crime. Check the IRS website for more details: https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/work-opportunity-tax-credit-1

      When I used to work as a pre-release coordinator in a state prison system, we would encourage the offenders to bring information about these two programs to any interviews in case the topic of their past criminal convictions came up.

      Hope this helps.

  • Cletus A. Morton Reply

    I (former MO Probation/Parole Officer) was involved in the Missouri PRI program when I was a parole officer in 2010. Unsure if it is still going on or if it failed to continue. It seemed to help some, but they were letting everyone apply even though there were restrictions. Dangerous felons, sex offenders, etc. There were also those offenders that no matter what you do, cannot be helped.

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