Criminal Law

When Is a Prisoner Released to a Halfway House?

By Janet Portman, Attorney
Not everyone is eligible for release to a halfway house. Local resources, the prisoner's incarceration history, and the nature of the underlying offense are all factors that determine whether the prisoner will be placed.

A halfway house is a residence for people who would otherwise be incarcerated, in jail or prison. They’re now commonly called “community correctional centers,” or “residential rehabilitation centers.” Local, state, and federal agencies run them, as do private subcontractors who get government funding, and nonprofits that rely on contributions. Thousands of convicted prisoners, who are serving alternative sentences or who have been released early from jail or prison to transition to life on the outside, live in halfway houses.

The people who are in halfway houses have been funneled into them through the criminal justice system, and fall into one of three broad groups: Those who are receiving counseling for drug or alcohol addiction, people who are receiving assistance for a mental health problem, and those who are learning to re-enter society after a period of incarceration.

Who Is Eligible for Residence in a Halfway House?

A prisoner’s eligibility for residence in a halfway house depends on many factors, as well as the nature of the prisoner’s underlying crime. The determination is intensely local, depending on state law, the capacity of local jails and prisons, and the availability of halfway houses. In general, these factors influence the chances that a person will be recommended for a stay in a halfway house.

  • Housing availability. States can’t send prisoners to houses unless they are up and running. The number of houses and their capacity is the first issue that a court or correctional official will consider.
  • The prisoner’s record. A prisoner with a record of failed halfway house experiences, or violence while incarcerated, will have a tough time getting placed.
  • The nature of the prisoner’s crime. Prisoners convicted of violent crimes are less likely to be recommended for placement. Those with petty or “victimless” crime histories (such as white-collar crime) are more likely to be admitted, as are those with substance abuse issues who seem amenable to treatment.
  • The state of overcrowding in local jails or state prison. The need to make room for convicts who must be housed in secure facilities will put pressure to release those who might be good candidates for halfway houses.
  • Tight state or local budgets. Studies show that housing convicts in halfway settings is less expensive than paying for state prison stays.

What Happens in a Halfway House?

Halfway houses have rules, treatment programs, work requirements and curfews. While in a halfway house, inmates may not use drugs or drink alcohol. They must get permission before leaving the halfway house, participate in required programs, and look for a job. An inmate who fails to comply with the rules of a halfway house can be discharged and sent back to prison or jail. When that happens, whether the time spent at the halfway house will count towards the prisoner’s incomplete sentence is a matter of state law.

The types of programing and services vary widely. While most halfway houses offer substance abuse programming and employment services, others also offer educational programs, cognitive therapy groups, financial counseling, life and parenting skills classes, anger management classes, behavior medication programs, spiritual programs, domestic violence counseling, and programs for sex offenders.

How Effective Are Halfway Houses?

The federal government and the states have spent billions of dollars on halfway houses, assuming that they would cost less and cut down on recidivism. In 2010, traditional prison cost the federal government about $28,000 per year per inmate, 9.4% more than it costs to place that inmate in one of the contracting halfway houses. (John Spyros Albanes, Demystifying Risk Assessment: Giving Prisoners a Second Chance at Individualized Community Confinement Under the Second Chance Act, 64 ADMIN. L. REV. 937, 943 (2012).)

However, there seems to be little difference in recidivism between incarcerated inmates and those given a spot in a halfway house. A Pennsylvania study released in 2013, for example, found that 36% of the inmates who came through the halfway-house system in that state were rearrested or sent back to prison within one year, compared with 26.6% of the inmates who were released directly to the streets. (NICOLETTE BELL, ET AL., PA. DEP'T OF CORR., 2013 RECIDIVISM REPORT 27 (2013).)

Why Aren’t Halfway Houses More Effective?

The statistics show that participation in a halfway house does not appreciably decrease the chance that an inmate will re-offend. In fact, those released straight-to-street fare better. Why is this?

One commentator has focused on the location of halfway houses. These facilities are generally not welcomed in “good” parts of town. Lawmakers’ attempts to situate halfway houses in better neighborhoods often fail, the result of restrictive zoning laws and the reluctance of states to use the power of imminent domain to force the issue. As a result, the facilities end up in poor, crime-ridden areas whose residents lack the political clout or energy to object to them. (Location, Location, Location: How Local Land Use Restrictions are Dulling Halfway Housing’s Criminal Rehabilitation Potential, 48 Urban Lawyer 329, Spring 2016.)

Placing a halfway house in a crime-infested neighborhood often puts offenders right back in the society they were in pre-offense. It runs contrary to the basic advice given to those about to be released: If you were surrounded by friends and family that contributed to your inclination to offend, do not go back into that milieu. To the extent that this theory is true, the promise of halfway houses, optimistically announced by Robert F. Kennedy, awaits meaningful reform of the way zoning laws are used to protect certain neighborhoods and residents.

Questions to Ask Your Lawyer

  • If I’m convicted as charged, will I be eligible for release to a halfway house?
  • Can we negotiate a plea bargain that will enable me to serve a sentence in a halfway house?
  • What are the chances that I’ll be released early from prison and sent to a halfway house?
  • What do we have to present to the judge to convince the court that I’d be a good candidate for a halfway house instead of going to jail?
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