Right Man Walking: Optimizing Early Prisoner Release – A Discussion of the Article in The Actuary

by Nickolas Ortner, FSA

NickOrtner My inspiration for the article, “Right Man Walking: Optimizing Early Prisoner Release” in the December/January issue of The Actuary, was the result of recent publicity—starting with news in my current and former home states of Nebraska and Wisconsin, respectively, and realizing that this has also become an issue elsewhere—related to early release programs and seemingly unasked (and so also unanswered) questions related to released prisoners’ recidivism and the underlying efficacy of such programs.

It struck me as suboptimal in its simplicity—without digging in at the individual risk assessment level, and primarily focused on only the prisoners’ most recent history—to release broad groups of "nonviolent offenders within a certain timeframe of their otherwise scheduled parole time."

Perhaps some or many of those candidates for release may well be prepared for release earlier, but some or many may not be, and that does not appear to be an element in the decision-making process.

With that came my accompanying questions about this apparent "quick budget fix" as it relates to the potential downstream unintended consequences of such programs, namely:

1. Has a broader societal impact been rigorously considered related to recidivism risks? The ultimate consequence may be murder committed by an early-released prisoner (e.g., a recent high-profile case in Illinois has drawn scrutiny to these programs), but any recidivism may still take a societal toll.

2. Related to #1, are such anticipated savings truly real, achievable and measurable, or will some proportion of those inmates end up reappearing at a local jail, effectively representing unfunded mandates from the state (or federal) level, with costs shifted to a more local level?

3. At the released prisoner level, does the early release of an unprepared prisoner set those individuals up for failure and elevate the chances of recidivism? Without the time in prison to get into and complete rehabilitation programs, coupled with insufficient post-release preparation being lined up in terms of training, jobs, and various other support programs and systems, a reasonable conclusion is that the chances for re-violating increase.

Briefly summarized, my article describes a more rigorous and dynamic process—and I view this as a first draft subject to scrutiny, revision and changes along the way—to consider for implementation in order to optimize the results from early release programs, while at the same time better recognizing the risks that accompany such a program. Those aforementioned optimized results include the practical— saving taxpayer money—and the personal—serving a greater good for both the society at large (with more funds made available for allocation to programs that serve more citizens and dampen/eliminate recidivism) and the released prisoners (via a rigorous program that maximizes their chances for a successful transition back into society).

Beyond being interested in your general thoughts and reactions to the article (you can read it here), I’m particularly interested in your responses to the following as part of the discussion:

Of the risks listed, what do you see as the most significant barriers to implementing or sustaining such an evidence-based program, particularly as a program that may be privatized to help drive taxpayer savings? Are there other risks that I may also be missing? Feel free to share your responses below.

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