As the flagging economy forces states to tighten their belts, prisons are one of the many big budget categories being scrutinized. This already has produced a flurry of news stories about “early releases.” A typical example was a Salt Lake Tribune story this week that said “up to 500 prisoners could hit the streets early” if the legislature doesn't expand a prison. The Tribune can't be blamed for using that phrase because the state corrections director said it in legislative testimony.
The risk of comparisons to a former president who wondered what the definition of “is” is, what exactly is an “early” release? Most states have mechanisms to shorten prison stays for good behavior; slight alterations in that policy, for instance freeing a convict a few months before he or she otherwise would have been out, don't amount to a wholesale shift in sentencing practices. In Utah, a prison official said most so-called early releases would involve inmates who are up for parole soon or are nonviolent offenders.
The implication of “early” is “premature.” It's true that some inmates have been freed after serving only a seemingly small fraction of their stated sentences, like 12 years of a 20-year term. When one of them commits another crime, attention will focus on whether the release was premature. Without knowing details of the convict's case and the state's overall record on releases and recidivism, it may be difficult to determine.
My advice to journalists is to avoid the term “early release” and stick to the facts. If a state is changing its policy to release inmates before they might have been freed years earlier, what is the basis for that change? Richard Jerome of the Pew Center on the States' Public Safety Performance Project says that “if a state determines that an inmate is at low-risk for reoffending, has participated in programs that reduce recidivism and has paid his price to society and should be released, that is not an 'early' release but an appropriate release. This is essentially what parole boards do.” If states are not taking those or other precautions and are chopping large chunks of time off sentences, report that too, but compare it with what was happening in the past. Time served overall has increased in recent years–the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has figures on the subject–so what is happening now may be a mid-course correction. A headline “Prison Terms Shortened” is fine; the term “early” can be a loaded one.
The biggest news reporting challenge may come in California, where courts are on the verge of forcing the state to release tens of thousands of inmates. Rather than merely labeling this an “early release,” journalists should explore both in California and elsewhere exactly how states are deciding whom to release. Some 700,000 inmates were getting out nationally every year even before the expected wave of new releases, so smart reporting would explore what is and isn't being done to help inmates re-enter society.