Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Parole and its Discontents

I discuss California's broken parole system in a two part interview that debuts today on the UC Berkeley News Center website (read the interview with News Center reporter Cathy Cockrell). Please leave any comments on the interview here on the blog.

We are in time of crises and thus one of opportunity for fundamentally reinventing our institutions. For reasons I address at length in the interview, parole cannot work as it was intended to. Instead it is a system that offers a predictably routinely broken promise of control while subjecting thousands of ex-prisoners to a revolving door system of repetitive short imprisonments that can serve no known function of punishment.

It pains me to say so, because I have met so many dedicated and talented parole agents and supervisors over the years but if I became Czar of California I would abolish parole completely, transferring its helping functions to the private sector by giving each prisoner upon release a voucher to purchase drug treatment or job training, and a list of certified providers in their community. I would transfer its control functions to a unit of the state police who would be responsible for conducting regular investigations over a group of released prisoners whose track record of violence or serious gang involvement warrants the additional expense.

Many of these talented agents and supervisors should be absorbed into a revitalized system of county probation where they would have responsibilities to manage in the community (or after a jail sentence) many of the same people who are now routinely sent to state prison but who can and should be kept at the county level.

7 comments:

Aaron said...

Jonathan,

I really enjoyed reading your comments on the Berkeley News Service. This is an important topic and I think it will receive an increasing amount of attention in our current era of fiscal contraction.

I recently read an interesting and very thorough report that summarized the empirical literature addressing the impact of different state sentencing policies on incarceration growth (http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/213003.pdf). Among the report's findings is that states with a combination of determinate sentencing (the abolition of discretionary parole) and presumptive sentencing guidelines had lower incarceration rates and lower growth in incarceration rates than other states. However, either policy alone was not related to the size or growth of incarceration rates.

Based on your experience, does this finding ring true to you or do you think it may be merely an artifact of murky data that does not allow for clean identification of a causal effect? I'd be interested to know your thoughts on this topic.

Best,
Aaron Chalfin
Ph.D. Student, GSPP, UC Berkeley

Jonathan Simon said...

Thanks Aaron
That is a finding that makes sense to me. Determinate sentencing has often been blamed as the causal force behind California's excessive incarceration growth. It is true that the abandonment of discretionary parole went along with the formation of a new punitive politics of crime control, but institutional mechanisms matter as well (imagine how large our prison population would be if a board appointed by our governors had to approve every release from prison).

California's problem (in part) is that it abandoned discretionary parole release but kept and expanded a period of mandatory parole supervision. Hardly any other states have done that so it might be hard to test statistically, but clearly parole created recidivism is a driving force in the California numbers.

The three strikes law also deserves considerable blame, especially in its 2nd strike and wide ranging 3rd strike applications

LAwarpony said...

thank you for your insightfullness of the current parole system. your article deals mainly with determinate sentencing. would you have statistics on paroled lifers?

my husband is a lifer, sentenced to 15 to life and we are ending our 20th year and he has never had a major diciplinary write up no fighting, substance abuse etc...(he's recieved minor write ups for a grooming standard, ie: refusing to cut his hair due to culture and religious reasons, (we're native american) & eventually that grooming standard was changed.

last august, '08, my husband was found suitable for parole, but the govenor reversed it (based pretty much for the same reason the parole board granted his date. he's prior filings are now coming back stating 'moot' because he was found suitable...but he's still incarcerated!

apparently we are now on a merry go round which is not very 'merry'.

just getting to the 'paroled' status is such a hair pulling exercise, when he's got major family & program support as well as mulitple viable job offers waiting ... he can be a tax payer rather than a tax burden.

i'd be interested in reading you thoughts on 'pre parole'... (or is there such a thing.

thanks again for a great article in the berkeley news.

lindasixfeathers,
wife of a inmate in soledad

Liferswifey said...

Great article, if only it were that simple. It appears that the system is corrupt from the bottom up. CDCr loves to keep the prisoners as long as they can.

coralifer'swife said...

I belive the Board of Parol Hearing for the Lifer's are very crul and arrogant croup that have the athority to keep inmates in prison as long as they want. When my husband went for his hearing the PB had the worng file and name & accused him of several things that he has nothing to do with. When his appointed attorney pointed out to them that they had the worng file the BM was offended & had my husband with the attorney escorted out of the room & they gave him 3yrs before his next hearing.Is this acceptable??????

Liferswifey said...

That is despicable! Your husband's lawyer should have reported this to someone in my opinion.

paladins4 said...

I am under the Federal Parole system and have been for 22 years, even though the sentence was 20 years, the US PAROLE COMMISSION has the legal authority to extend sentences and imprison parolees immediately without a hearing, for any percieved violation of the rules. I was convicted in 1987 of Mail Fraud to the tune of $10,000, and at the time of the imposed sentence the guidelines called for a 34-44 month term of imprisonment. I have served more than 12 years in prison and more than 10 years on parole, being returned to prison for "administrative" violations of the parole rules, and thus according to the Parole Commission subject to extensions of the sentence beyond that which the court imposed.
I am non-violent, pose no threat to anyone, nor am I or have I ever been involved in the drug culture, however I am still paying "my debt" to this society after 22 years. Using the economic statistics of the cost to the taxpayers:
12 years in prison cost around $360,000.00 and ten years on parole $80,000.00. If you then add the cost of defending each and every challenge made to the actions of the US PAROLE COMMISSION, this arbitrary 20 year sentence, and the other lawsuits involved in this case, the taxpayers shelled out more than $4,000,000.00 making me pay for a $10,000 check.
And...the cycle continues. this Parole System definitely does little good for society.