Start Sending Parolees to New Neighborhoods

They'll stay out of trouble longer, a new study suggests.
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Inmates at the Orleans Parish Prison. (Photo: Bart Everson/Flickr)

Inmates at the Orleans Parish Prison. (Photo: Bart Everson/Flickr)

"You can make it if you try." That advice (with regard to getting a job) is just one of the many bits of wisdom contained within California's Parolee Information Handbook. But, according to a new study of parolees in post-Katrina Louisiana, policies that limit where parolees live may undermine an ex-con's efforts to stay on the straight and narrow.

The unfortunate reality is that most parolees don't make it on the outside. Within three years of release, two-thirds of ex-convicts in the United States are sent back to prison; after five years, that figure jumps to about 75 percent, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Government policies may have something to do with that. In many states, parolees must return to the areas—sometimes even the very same neighborhoods—where they lived pre-prison. Typically, that also means sending those former inmates back into areas dense with other parolees, which social scientists have long suspected is not a very good idea. But that's not been an easy hypothesis to test.

In a community of 200,000 people with a 20 percent one-year recidivism rate, adding 200 additional parolees would bump the rate to 22.2 percent.

Then Hurricane Katrina happened, giving sociologist David Kirk the data he needed.

Prior to Katrina, parolees in Louisiana mostly went back to their old neighborhoods, filled with other parolees. Such was the case with about half of the prisoners in New Orleans. But after Katrina, parolees dispersed around the state—only one in five returned to New Orleans—likely because there was little housing and few people left in the Big Easy. That set up a kind of natural experiment: By comparing recidivism rates in communities that did and didn't have a large influx of parolees post-Katrina, Kirk could determine the effect of parolee concentration on recidivism.

That effect, it turns out, is surprisingly strong. Releasing one additional prisoner per 1,000 residents into a neighborhood, the probability that a parolee living there went back to prison within a year increased by about 11 percent. For example, in a community of 200,000 people with a 20 percent one-year recidivism rate, adding 200 additional parolees would bump the rate to 22.2 percent, and adding another 200 parolees pushes the rate to 24.7 percent.

"Put simply, the alarming rates of recidivism in the United States are partly a consequence of the fact that many individuals being released from prison ultimately reside in the same neighborhoods as other former felons," Kirk writes in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Dispersing the geographic concentration of parolees, though leading to some geographic displacement of incarceration and recidivism, would likely yield a net reduction in recidivism in aggregate."

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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