More than 1 in 5 state inmates maxed out their prison terms and were released to their communities without any supervision in 2012, undermining efforts to reduce reoffending rates and improve public safety.
Despite growing evidence and a broad consensus that the period immediately following release from prison is critical for preventing recidivism, a large and increasing number of offenders are maxing out—serving their entire sentences behind bars—and returning to their communities without supervision or support. These inmates do not have any legal conditions imposed on them, are not monitored by parole or probation officers, and do not receive the assistance that can help them lead crime-free lives.
An analysis of this trend by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that:1
- Between 1990 and 2012, the number of inmates who maxed out their sentences in prison grew 119 percent, from fewer than 50,000 to more than 100,000.
- The max-out rate, the proportion of prisoners released without receiving supervision, was more than 1 in 5, or 22 percent of all releases, in 2012.
- Max-out rates vary widely by state: In Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Oregon, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, fewer than 10 percent of inmates were released without supervision in 2012. More than 40 percent of inmates maxed out their prison terms and left without supervision in Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah.
- Nonviolent offenders are driving the increase. In a subset of states that had data available by offense type, 20 and 25 percent of drug and property offenders, respectively, were released without supervision in 2000, but those figures grew to 31 and 32 percent, or nearly 1 in 3, in 2011.
The increase in max-outs is largely the outcome of state policy choices over the past three decades that resulted in offenders serving higher proportions of their sentences behind bars. Indeed, “truth-in-sentencing” laws, limits on release eligibility, and the outright elimination of parole in some states added nine months to the average prison time served by offenders released in 2009, compared with those released two decades earlier.2
Yet new research suggests that for many offenders, shorter prison terms followed by supervision have the potential to reduce both recidivism and overall corrections costs. In New Jersey, for example, inmates released to parole supervision before their sentences expired were 36 percent less likely to return to prison—even when controlling for risk factors such as an offender’s prior record that reliably predict recidivism—than inmates who maxed out.3
In the past few years, policymakers in at least eight states took steps to ensure that offenders are supervised after release from prison. Among the measures: mandating a period of post-prison supervision, carving that time out of the prison term rather than adding it at the end, improving parole decision-making, tailoring the intensity and duration of supervision to each offender’s public safety risk level, and strengthening community corrections through reinvestment in evidence-based practices.
This report examines the rise in max-outs and its policy origins, looks at states that are leading on the use of post-prison supervision to protect public safety and reduce costs, and provides a framework to help other states use evidence to inform release and supervision decisions.