Parole Revisited

A sea change has overtaken parole in the course of the last three decades. Partly in response to ever-harsher public attitudes toward offenders, in state after state parole boards have either been eliminated or their powers with respect to prisoner-release decisions have been greatly reduced.

Previously, prisoners could—on demonstrating factors like community ties and positive behavioral changes through participation in educational and other programs—apply for and often receive early release through their parole boards.


Now, however, tough-on-crime legislative initiatives such as “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” and mandatory minimum laws aimed primarily at drug offenders have rendered early release difficult. In addition, the crime bill of 1994 made it possible for states to receive federal funding for prison construction, but on condition that those inmates convicted of certain specified offenses serve 85 percent of their sentences—a measure that in a number of states has in itself all but eliminated the possibility of early release. Ex-offenders generally return to their communities with next to no preparation because of cuts in educational and pre-release programs for people still behind bars, and they have little more in their pockets than bus fare and a token sum of money with which to rebuild their lives.

With or without early release, however, most jurisdictions still impose some form of post-release supervision through parole officers. Their role, too, has undergone a sea change. Prior to the shift toward more determinate or fixed types of sentencing in the l970’s and 80’s, they had a two-fold task. As Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., put it during a telephone interview, parole officers used to be “half cop and half social worker. They would take you by the hand,” he said, “and get you settled into a job or training program and provide help with issues like housing.” But now, he continued, their function is overwhelmingly surveillance-oriented.

One critic of this change in the parole officer’s role—Joan Petersilia, a professor of criminology at the University of California at Irvine who focuses on parole and prisoner reintegration—has written that the present stress on surveillance has led to a pronounced shift away from a central component of parole’s original function, namely, smoothing the offender’s transition back into the community. She observed in an essay on parole in the book Prisons, which she co-edited in 1999, “Sadly, while inmates’ need for service and assistance is up, parole in some...states has retreated from its historical mission to provide counseling, job training and housing assistance.” One sign of this retreat is the fact that in over two-thirds of the states, parole officers are now authorized to carry firearms—a circumstance that relates them so closely to police officers as to virtually transform them into what she terms “a walking court system,” because they have the power “to arrest, confine and in some cases reimprison the parolee.”

Even Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association, acknowledged in another telephone interview that surveillance is not enough. “I call it tailing, nailing and jailing them,” he said. In “tailing” a parole officer focuses primarily on whether the person under supervision is adhering to the various conditions of parole. These include regular testing for drugs, finding and maintaining employment, observing curfews and other restrictions in terms of movement. Failure to adhere to any of these conditions—evidence of “dirty urine,” for instance, or breaking a curfew—can result in parole revocation and a return to prison. The level of surveillance can be strict indeed. One former parolee I know personally from my days as a prison chaplain told me that after his release in 2001, his parole officer appeared at his door one morning just before 7 a.m. to verify that he was observing the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew imposed upon him. Had my acquaintance left his home even 10 minutes early, he would have been in technical violation of his parole.

The most frequently imposed condition is drug testing. In something of a Catch-22 situation, failure in this area can stem not so much from an ex-offender’s unwillingness to try to remain drug free, as from inadequate access to residential substance-abuse treatment programs. Mr. Wicklund noted that it is not uncommon for a released offender seeking help to find that no beds are available in local programs. And since programs generally require reimbursement, long delays in being certified for Medicaid may constitute another roadblock to a parolee’s receiving treatment in a timely fashion.

Mr. Wicklund also pointed out that part of the overall difficulty with the conditions of parole is their boilerplate nature. One size is assumed to fit all. “The conditions may or may not make sense in a given situation,” he said, and when they do not, “we can end up setting parolees up for failure, just by dint of what we’re expecting them to comply with.” Since it is known that relapses are common for those in recovery, a more reasonable approach than ever-more frequent drug testing might be to assist the parolee’s efforts to complete successfully a substance abuse program instead of citing him for dirty urine and returning him to prison. Instead of the boilerplate approach to parole conditions, Mr. Wicklund stressed the need for conditions to be realistic and effective as determined by research.

Because of failure by those on supervised release and their consequent return to prison, parole violators now account for a substantial number of people entering prison. Indeed, fully a third of those currently behind bars are parole violators. This is one of the reasons why our ever-expanding incarcerated population is hovering around the two million mark. Todd Clear, a professor in the department of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said in yet another interview that over the past two decades alone, the number of parolee failures has jumped from 25 percent to 65 percent.

Professor Clear also commented on the various pressures those on parole face as they try to comply with the conditions imposed on them. As part of a recent re-entry project in Florida, he interviewed a number of parolees, along with their family members. “These are people who, while in prison, had to let others make decisions for them,” he said. “But then suddenly, they’re out and have to make their own, as well as live with all the new pressures imposed on them, like urine tests, curfews, job finding and child-support payments.”

But he added that these pressures are not balanced by a commensurate level of support on the part of the parole officer or the community at large. Families are affected in a variety of ways. He said, for instance, that since ex-offenders with drug convictions are barred from public housing, rejoining family members who live there may prove to be an impossibility—a situation that hampers family reunification.

The fault, however, does not lie entirely in the present emphasis on surveillance by parole officers. It lies also with the size of an agent’s caseload, which can easily approach 100 parolees, who must be seen on a regular basis. Under these circumstances, not much more than monitoring can reasonably be done. Funding questions also enter the picture. With the bulk of many states’ corrections budgets going into construction and the salaries of guards and other employees, relatively little is allocated for hiring more parole officers and for the rehabilitative services that might be possible if caseloads were smaller. But as both Professor Clear and Mr. Wicklund noted, additional funding would be of little help if the latter were to use smaller caseloads simply to tighten the same boilerplate conditions that exist now.

“If more resources were in fact available,” Professor Clear said, “we should use them to think about parole in a different way.” But even the resources once available for more personnel and needed rehabilitative services have themselves diminished as spending for prison construction and operating costs has proportionately increased. This effort to find a different way, sometimes referred to as reinventing parole, would include making wider use of strategies like intermediate sanctions. Thus, instead of sending a violator back to prison for technical violations, lesser—or graduated—sanctions might be employed, like one or more weekends in jail or monitoring by means of devices like electronic bracelets. A parolee’s refusal to respond to these graduated responses could then more justifiably lead to reincarceration.

Joan Petersilia observes in her essay that reinventing parole would also include placing far greater emphasis not only on quality drug treatment, but also on job training. For someone coming out of prison, finding a job—almost universally required by parole officers—can be difficult simply because the person has a record. A prison record does little to recommend an applicant to a prospective employer who may have other, record-free applicants for the same position. Yet studies have shown that the sooner a parolee can begin and maintain a job, the less likely the person is to revert to criminal behavior.

But depending on the circumstances, employment can itself produce problems in the re-entry process. Professor Clear said that while interviewing Florida parolees, he encountered some who did have employment but had to work at several minimum-wage jobs at the same time in order to earn enough to support their families. “That type of arrangement is not a long-term solution, because no one can work three jobs forever,” he said, though he acknowledged that “the more successful ones sometimes piece together a couple and make it work for them.”

Not all types of employment, however, are open to ex-offenders, and in fact, in some ways the opportunities have shrunken. A prison advocacy group in New York City, the Fortune Society, reported late last year that in the wake of Sept. 11, ex-offenders are to be denied the opportunity to work as baggage checkers in the nation’s airports, regardless of the positive changes they have made in their lives.

A third component of reinventing parole concerns the involvement of the community. As Mr. Wicklund phrased it, “We need everyone around the table”—faith groups, business organizations and others. What is lacking, he added, is this coming together to provide some of the needed services by volunteers. Taking a step in this direction, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.—with funds supplied by the Campaign for Human Development and the archdiocese itself—has hired an ombudswoman to train volunteers in parishes who will assist parolees with basic needs, such as how to go about job hunting, accessing drug programs, obtaining a driver’s license or a Social Security card. Especially in the parishes to which the ex-offenders would be returning, volunteers can thus serve as overall mentors. The concept of parish-based community volunteers to aid in the re-entry process grew out of the U.S. bishops’ statement issued two years ago, Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.

Mr. Wicklund also pointed out that the business sector of the community could help parolees get on their feet by being more willing to train and hire them—a move that in the long run should increase public safety. By the same token, he noted that state legislatures might well develop tax incentives for groups that work with ex-offender populations.

In the meantime, though, the outlook is not bright. Mr. Mauer observed that some states, like Texas—which has one of the largest populations of incarcerated people—have been trying to reduce the level of parole revocations. But with a shortsighted, tough-on-crime mind-set still entrenched throughout the country—and with rehabilitative programs underfunded as parole officers struggle with overly large caseloads—the likelihood remains strong that for years to come, parole revocations will continue to account for a large proportion of the men and women who swell our ever-increasing prison population.

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11 years 5 months ago
Thank you for your article “Parole Revisited” (3/4). I am a deacon involved daily in prison ministry at San Quentin State Prison in California. The parole violation return rate in California is over 80 percent. I find it interesting that the bulk of parole officers are former corrections officers who belong to the California Corrections Officers Association, one of the strongest unions in the state. It would seem that returning men and women to prison keeps their fellow officers employed. The system simply is not working, and the public needs to be aware of how it is wasting its money. Many of these men could be better served by having an opportunity to get treatment for their alcohol/drug problems as well as myriad mental health problems.

11 years 5 months ago
“Parole Revisited,” by George M. Anderson, S.J., (3/14) notes the elimination of parole boards in some states. The resulting “mandatory parole” releases (after a “definite sentence” rather than a range) have steadily increased. But, the older “discretionary parole” by parole boards is proving to be superior in keeping offenders from returning to prison, according to a report, “Research Summary,” from the Solicitor General, Canada (Vol. 4, No. 6, 1999). In every year between 1990 and 1999, state prisoners released by a parole board had higher success rates (in completing their term of supervision) than those released through mandatory parole. Among parole discharges in 1999, 54 percent of discretionary parolees were successful compared to 33 percent of those who had received mandatory parole.


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