Prisons are among the most understudied public institutions in our country. As was noted in the National Academy of Sciences report on incarceration in the U.S., “existing data do not provide even the most basic information regarding the conditions of confinement faced by prisoners.” This shortfall is particularly noteworthy given the high rates of incarceration in the U.S. and the current political consensus that too many people are in prison and recidivism rates following release from prison are too high. Around the country, more and more prison administrators support the adoption of evidence-based policies that promote safety in their prisons, effective programs and successful reentry.
LJAF is exploring the opportunities for investment in this policy domain. Of particular interest is the decision to release an incarcerated individual prior to the completion of his or her sentence. Over the past few decades, prison populations have increased, in part, because defendants are sentenced to longer terms and the options for discretionary release have been reduced, either by statute or as a matter of practice. Yet, as many states are exploring ways to reduce prison populations, policymakers are once again looking at discretionary release options. Some states have retained systems for parole release and are considering new policies governing the release decision, the role of risk assessment instruments in that decision, and the statutory framework for making this decision. Many states are experimenting with compassionate release policies, recognizing that the prison population is rapidly aging. Others are testing work release and educational release programs, reflecting the benefits of the low unemployment rate and the importance of education in successful reentry. Other policy reforms include expanded use of halfway houses and greater use of earned time provisions. Like the bail decision at the front end, the release decision at the back end of the criminal justice process seems ripe for research, experimentation, and innovation.
LJAF is also interested in working with state governments to improve reentry outcomes for individuals leaving state and federal prison. Of particular interest are programs that link prison healthcare to community based health care. This perspective includes special attention to the need for drug treatment for individuals leaving prison and risking the return to substance abuse. Working with our colleagues across other teams at LJAF, we are will explore the fiscal dimensions of health care for people in prison and leaving prison. Beyond the issue of health care and reentry, the larger reentry policy agenda remains a top priority for government at all levels, and represents substantial opportunity to improve the lives of individuals leaving prison and their families. For these reasons, in the years to come, LJAF hopes to define a unique contribution that we can make to this national reform movement.