updated 7/24/2007 6:18:34 PM ET 2007-07-24T22:18:34

About 1,600 people get out of prison every day, and more than half are back within three years — a problem researchers say might be reduced if offenders got more help right after release.

The National Research Council is proposing a redesign of parole systems to test the value of concentrating resources when people are first returned to the community, a time when they are most likely to commit new crimes and when they also have a high death rate.

“That period right after release is riskiest, both for the former inmate and for the community,” said Richard Rosenfeld, co-chair of the committee that prepared Tuesday’s report by the council.

The committee urged an experiment in which a concentration of services is provided in some places and not others, to determine the effect, said Rosenfeld, of the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

“If it works, the impact would be fewer re-arrests among released prisoners and reduced risk for those individuals who are coming out of prison,” he said in a telephone interview.

Positive results
Christy A. Visher, principal researcher at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, said Illinois has a special program giving close attention before and after release for people convicted of drug crimes.

“Preliminary results seem positive,” said Visher, a member of the NRC committee.

The costs are higher than ordinary parole services, she said, “but if the reductions in return to prison hold, then overall costs should be lower.”

Numerous studies show the costs of providing services in the community are lower than keeping someone in prison, she said.

The recommendations included intensive and detailed counseling both before and after release, along with immediate enrollment in drug treatment programs, intense parole supervision and assistance in finding work.

In addition, the panel suggested the use of short-term halfway houses, mentors who are available at the moment of release and assistance in obtaining identification, clothes and other immediate needs.

“The key is that a person should not leave prison without an immediately available person and plan for post-release life,” said the report, requested by the Justice Department.

High imprisonment rate
The United States has the highest rate of imprisonment in the industrialized world, the report said. Overall, about 600,000 people are released from prisons and jails in the United States annually, and 480,000 of them are subject to post-release monitoring such as parole.

The council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, said the report was based on research and a workshop it held.

There is no average parolee, the report concluded.

Those who have short criminal records or have committed violent offenses have lower rates of recidivism, the study found, while parolees with long criminal records, or who have committed drug or property crimes, tend to be arrested again.

Many parolees lack education and have mental problems.

Some approaches help
But, the council said, contrary to the commonly quoted conclusion that “nothing works,” there is evidence that some approaches work for some offenders.

Actions that have shown promise include treatment for substance abuse and psychological therapy. In addition, employment and training programs and mentoring show promise but need further study, the report said.

Good, stable marriages and strong ties to work appear to be particularly important in preventing repeat crimes, the report noted.

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