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From California to Connecticut, government officials are looking for ways to reduce the size and associated costs of their prison populations. Much of this reform activity has focused on changes in sentencing statutes. More than half of the states have repealed laws establishing mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain crimes. Many have changed the formulas for determining the percentage of a sentence that must be served before the prisoner can be released on parole. A focus on these changes, however laudable, overlooks an obvious reform opportunity-the system of “back-end sentencing” that sends more than 200,000 former prisoners back to prison each year for parole violations. Attention to this little-known phenomenon could have two key benefits of interest to taxpayers-saving money and reducing crime. Back-end sentencing practices have been major contributors to the growth of the American prison population. Between 1980 and 2000, the prison population increased fourfold. During the same time period, the number of parole violators sent back to prison increased sevenfold, from 27,000 to more than 200,000. By the turn of the century, the nation was returning as many people to prison for parole violations as were sent to prison for any reason (convictions on new crimes and parole violations) 20 years earlier. Today, more than one-third of all prison admissions are former prisoners returned for violating parole terms. The fiscal consequences of this phenomenon are staggering. In California, for example, one-fifth of the state’s prison population consist of parole violators. According to the analysis of Michael Jacobson, author of Downsizing Prisons, California spends almost $1 billion a year to house these parole violators. Only estimates to go by We know surprisingly little about the phenomenon of back-end sentencing. According to national estimates, about one-third of those returned to prison for parole violations were arrested for new crimes. The remaining two-thirds committed minor rules infractions such as failing a drug test, violating a curfew, missing appointments with the parole agent or moving to a new address without permission. Yet few states have documented the reasons for these deprivations of liberty, much less provided public access to the decision-making processes underlying this hidden sentencing system. Back-end sentencing has eluded the attention of justice reformers. The clarion call to “treat like cases alike” that animated sentencing reform a generation ago has not been heard at the back end of our criminal justice system, where a parole violator returned for involvement in a serious felony may receive a new sentence slightly longer than a parole violator testing positive for drugs. The imperative to insulate sentencing decisions from racial bias has not been applied to sentencing for parole violations, where the discretion accorded to parole agents is virtually immune from scrutiny. The movement to establish “truth in sentencing” has overlooked our system of prison for parole violations, where no one-public, former prisoner, victim or parole officer-is told with precision the penalty that will be imposed for new violations of laws or regulations. This failure to subject back-end sentencing to serious examination is particularly stunning in light of the most frequent justification for these practices-that such measures are necessary to control crime. It makes intuitive sense that putting hundreds of thousands of recently released prisoners back in prison would reduce crime. After all, the recidivism rate of this population is quite high. But this observation overlooks the reality that these prisoners will be released again, typically in a few months, with no better preparation to live crime-free lives on the outside, perhaps more bitter than before, and likely less connected to jobs, family networks and other social structures that are known to reduce criminal activity. The challenge is to make sense of back-end sentencing. First, we need to create a jurisprudence of reintegration that provides a principled framework for the exercise of state control over the lives of released prisoners. The conditions imposed during a period of parole should be narrowly justified, used only to promote public safety or to support successful re-entry. Mindless rules that only erect hurdles and provide pretexts for new prison terms should be abolished. If the parolee commits a new crime, all bets are off. The parolee should be prosecuted and, if convicted, sentenced to a new prison term. But the use of prison for violating administrative rules should be a rare event, imposed only for compelling reasons. This new jurisprudence of reintegration also should adhere to the principles that govern sentencing at the front end of our prison system. The terms of parole, in essence a new sentence after prison, should be clearly articulated, like cases should be treated alike, the decisions of parole agents should follow clear guidelines and the entire system should be open to public scrutiny to ensure that racial bias and geographic disparities have not corrupted the pursuit of justice. The second step is to create a system of re-entry management that saves money and reduces crime. States are experimenting with “half-way back” houses that offer stability for parolees who need it, with re-entry courts that provide judicial oversight of sanctions and services and with one-stop community re-entry centers that coordinate the provision of needed services. The machinery of back-end sentencing has squeezed out the critical thinking that represents true reform. A new focus could save money and reduce crime. Jeremy Travis is president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York. This article is adapted from his new book, But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry, which will be published by the Urban Institute Press on April 12.

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