Federal and state laws that got tough on crime in the 1980s and filled the nation's prisons are now producing an uneasy dividend for crime-conscious communities a floodtide of convicted felons who must be reintegrated into society.
Record numbers of ex-offenders are returning to the streets this year, and most face bleak prospects for jobs, counseling for drug addictions and places to live.
State parole officers, already burdened with more than 1.4 million active parolees nationwide, are largely overwhelmed.
"We negotiated ratios of 70 to 1 for our parole officers," says Scott Johnson, president of the Parole Agents Association of California. "But realistically, we're now looking at more like 100 to 1."
The solution, according to a spectrum of experts familiar with the problems ex-offenders encounter as they leave prison, is "day reporting" programs -- programs that help ex-cons readjust to society, find a job and deal with other reentry problems.
But the concept is far ahead of reality, experts say. And a new federal grant unveiled by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft this summer -- $100 million, doled out to the states in to stimulate development of offender support systems is hardly making a dent.
"It's just a drop in the bucket," says Jim Anderson, who directs private reentry programs for BI Incorporated of Boulder, Colorado a company that got its start with electronic monitoring devices.
The U.S. Justice Department's most recent statistics show that convicted felons many of whom are high risk with a history of violent crime - are being turned out of prisons at the rate of some 1,700 a day.
About 630,000 offenders will come "home" from prison this year alone, and twice that many 1.2 million are expected to be released in 2010, Justice officials predict.
That tide of returning inmates 80 percent of whom have unresolved substance abuse problems lack education, have few job skills and don't cope well in normal environments, is putting state-paid parole officers under the gun.
"The question is, are they (inmates) prepared, and are we prepared for them to come home," said Jeremy Travis, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and former director of the National Institute of Justice.
Travis says the answer is no. A recent study by the Urban Institute shows disturbing trends in preparing inmates for release. Most of them are brought on by economic realities of housing, feeding and caring for prison inmates inside the walls. Treatment and training come last.
"One of things we documented is a decrease in participation in educational programs, and in drug treatment programs inside," Travis said. "More people are coming home and they are less prepared to reenter society. It makes the work of parole agents much more difficult."
That issue was on the lips of most of the members of the American Parole and Probation Association, who gathered in Denver late last month to talk about issues, including the new attention to reentry services that, many hope, offer some mitigation for high rates of recidivism.
"Re-entry is the new buzzword in parole, of course," said Karen Fuller, a spokesperson for the association. "We scheduled a strong diet of discussions for our members on those issues at the conference."
Prison experts say that prison populations have begun to level off, ending the lavish prison building-boom that resulted from the war on drugs and other crime-reduction efforts.
But the numbers of inmates headed back to the crime-conscious communities from which they were plucked won't drop for years to come.
With that in mind, corrections officials from New York to California are taking a closer look at specialized re-entry programs -- some privately operated -- to help inmates transition back outside the prison walls.
In Colorado, the state Department of Correction is using its federal funding to convert part of an existing prison a reentry center. But they say they intend to continue with extensive day-reporting centers they have funded through private organizations.
Nebraska, on the other hand, has rejected federal funds for re-entry programs over concerns that they won't be able to find local funding to continue such efforts.
Professional parole officers like California's Scott Johnson say the need for programs is adversely affected by the growing economic pressures on state prisons.
"State run reentry programs don't exist in California anymore because of budget cutbacks," he said. "High risk inmates may get a parole class in prison, and then they get assigned to a single parole officer. That's it. And good luck."
At the same time, union organizations for parole officers often taken a dim view of corporate reentry services, which charge $30-$35 a day for inmates and may pay less to their employees.
Other states, meanwhile, are looking at enhancing their community reentry programs specifically through drug and alcohol counseling, job skills and job hunting services that inmates don't get inside prison walls.
But do those programs work?
Diane Williams, president and CEO of the Safer Foundation in Chicago, believes they do. Her organization has 30 years of experience at providing services for inmates leaving prison.
"When they first started talking about this new' concept of day reporting, I had to laugh," Williams quipped. "I thought, hey, this is what we have been doing for three decades."
While Williams is relatively new to the program she worked in telecommunications before taking over leadership of the foundation - she has seen the needs grow at a steady pace.
"We now have 20 percent more people seeking our services, with no increase in dollars," she said. The consequence? People are turned away, even though those who receive the services benefit.
"People that are able to come here to avail themselves of different services, whether it is a GED or job training, definitely do better," she said. "Our studies have shown that the more services that clients have had an opportunity to participate in, the lower the recidivism rate."
Anderson's BI Incorporated reports a similar experience. In cooperation with the Illinois correction officials, the company did a three-year study of the results of their efforts at job placement, education, and drug abuse counseling, using hard-core inmates who had served long prison terms for violent offenses.
Those results, announced earlier this year, showed that recidivism rates which typically average 70 percent or more were cut to 35 percent in the first year among those who successfully completed the day reporting program.
Beyond that, experts like Jeremy Travis see some silver lining to the otherwise cloudy outlook for parole programs.
"The bright spot is that people are focusing on the issue now," he said. "In a way, that was almost unimaginable just five years ago. Now, government agencies, churches, police agencies, and parole officials are trying to figure out a new identify for themselves in addressing the problems, coming up with ways to help manage the parole process differently.
"Business will have to play a bigger role," he said, "because jobs are very important. Ultimately institutions like churches will also have to play a larger role. And private providers? Yes. Definitely."
Dan Luzadder is a Denver-based writer who tracks state policy issues.