Temporary release schemes (Release on Temporary License)

This summary describes the findings of a systematic review of temporary-release schemes (Cheliotis, 2008), including those that involve time away from prison in a residential establishment – either home or elsewhere, and time away from prison to engage in employment.As the prison population continues to expand, in the UK and across the world, interest in finding workable alternatives to prison also grows. These alternatives include the use of Electronic Monitoring, or tagging, and an array of community based programs. One such approach gives prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentence a short break from prison, either to work or spend time with their family.

Studies reviewed

Average impact

Certainty of impact


System readiness


Positive effect


Not evaluated


What is it?

A temporary release scheme, also referred to as ‘release on temporary license’ or a ‘furlough’ scheme in the United States, gives prisoners a short period of release from prison, usually towards the end of a custodial sentence or a period of parole. In most cases, this involves spending time at the prisoner’s home or other establishment, like a half-way house or specialist transition facility, and/or a work-release scheme where a prisoner is given time during the day to engage in work outside of the prison, whilst returning to prison in the evening.

According to data cited by the systematic review, in the United States, the majority of prisons have a formal temporary release program in place, and anywhere between 3.5 and 90% of prisoners would have some engagement in the scheme. In England and Wales in 2016, some 7, 000 prisoners were granted temporary release on license (Hillier and Mews, 2018).

Should it work?

The main idea behind temporary release is that a short reprieve from the ‘pains’ of incarnation, including boredom, stress and low self-esteem, is helpful to prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentence. In theory, temporary release should assist prisoners in the transition away from prison life, which in turn, should reduce their exposure to criminogenic activities and encourage engagement in pro-social activities including work and family life. Temporary release can also help to reduce overcrowding in prisons, making prisons easier to manage.

Does it work?

The systematic review notes the relatively small amount of high quality studies of temporary release schemes. Bearing this in mind, the review found that, to the extent that firm conclusions can be drawn, both home leave and work release schemes can be effective in reducing recidivism rates, while work release schemes might also enhance post-release employment prospects. A number of high quality studies provide evidence that is statistically significant.

The author goes on to say that the evidence from their analysis is consistent with other recent systematic reviews and meta-analyses, that challenge the idea that ‘nothing works’. The review concludes that temporary release and work release schemes can be very useful, and should provide ‘a renewed sense of optimism about the rehabilitative potential of temporary release’ (2018, 166).

How strong is the evidence?

The programs being evaluated facilitated the release of prisoners on temporary license, either as home leave, or a work-release scheme. The research has to have considered at least one of the following intervention outcomes: recidivism following release from prison, risk-taking behaviours (e.g., harmful drug and use), attitudinal change (e.g., self-esteem, achievement motivation), and social adjustment post-release, including in employment, family and relationships.

The study utilised standard search strategies for a systematic review. The review utilised the Maryland Scale of Scientific Methods (Sherman et al., 1997) that ranks evaluations of outcomes on a scale of quality from one (the lowest) to five (the highest). At the highest level, randomisation studies provide the most rigorous means of assessing interventions and limiting the effects of bias.

The review intended to consider only studies that met the criteria for the most rigorous design, (level 3 or higher), however, only a few such studies were at this level. The majority of studies were between 2.5 and 5 on the scale, and the criteria were broadened to include:

• At minimum, the research design involved post-test observations on the outcome(s) on an experimental and an equivalent comparison unit of analysis.

• The sample size of both the experimental and the comparison groups was above 30.

• For a program to be considered effective or ineffective, there must be at least two level-2 1/2 to level-5 evaluations showing statistically significant results, and the bulk of the remaining evidence must support the same conclusion.


• For a program to be considered promising, there must be one level-2 1/2 to level-5 evaluation with statistical.

Is it worth it?

The review did not consider the costing of these programs.

Can it be implemented?

The review did not consider whether or not temporary release schemes could be implemented.

What’s missing from the evidence?

The use of temporary release schemes has not received a significant research attention, and those high quality studies that do exist have focused principally on recidivism rates. There is also an emphasis on male offenders, and the research is primarily concentrated in the United States.

The author of the review believes that future research should broaden the definition of recidivism beyond the current narrow scope, whilst also focusing on other matters such as impact on post-release employment and longer-term financial stability.


The researchers also note that many of the studies failed to adequately differentiate between different kinds of work-release schemes, which makes statistical analysis difficult.


Cheliotis, L. K. 2008. Reconsidering the effectiveness of temporary release: A systematic review, Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 8, 153-168.