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Prison-Release Reform and American Decarceration

By Kevin Reitz. Full Text.

Parole boards and other officials with prison-release discretion have enormous statutory power over the size of prison populations in their jurisdictions. In discussions of American mass incarceration and potential decarceration strategies for the future, however, these officials are rarely mentioned. Indeed, little is known about how they do their work and what the ripple effects of their decisions have been. This Article calls for a correction of these omissions. It documents the vast law-given authority over actual “time served” in prisons that is held by parole boards and corrections departments, giving illustrations from several states. It also suggests that certain arrangements for prison-release decision making have been associated with especially high prison growth in the past. Some system types appear to have acute vulnerabilities to uncontrolled prison expansion in times of political pressure. Other systems, in contrast, have built-in inhibitors against runaway growth. Close attention to the reform of prison-release mechanisms in the states is likely to be an essential component of an American decarceration program in the coming decades. Unfortunately, however, this work is not being done, and few people have recognized its importance.