Parole Abolition — Did It Work?

parole_boardby Sarah Scarbrough

What does “worked” mean? What does “success” truly mean? If it means having offenders spend the majority of their sentence behind bars and don’t get released early, then, sure, it worked. If it means seeing crime rates drop, then one could argue it worked. But, there are so many other factors associated – really, so many factors that it is close to impossible to give a definitive answer one way or another. So here goes – my attempt to explain many of the associated factors.

Former Governor George Allen’s plan to abolish parole could be seen as a “success” in that it established truth in sentencing through the requirement that felons served 85% of the time they were sentenced. When looking at the Virginia statistics 12 years after (2008), it was found that those convicted of first-degree murder spent 91 percent of their sentence in prison, with the average sentence being 32 years, rather than 12 years with parole.  The sentence of “life in prison,” now truly means “life in prison.”

Since abolishing parole, the violent crime rate in Virginia fell by 23 percent, the murder rate decreased by 30 percent, and forcible rape decreased by 15 percent. When examining the crimes and statistics before 1995, it was found that previous offenders committed the majority of these serious and violent offenses; therefore if a rapist serves 18 years rather than six years, he will not be able to hang out in parking lots waiting for his next victim.

However, the reason for the decline in the crime rates is debatable and hard to pin down. Many believe it is because of the abolition of parole – Virginia releases fewer people than ever before. The idea is that individuals “age-out” of crime when released now because they spend longer behind bars. However, the relatively new phenomenon of re-entry, programs, and treatment also likely is contributing to the decrease. Historically, upon incarceration, offenders were simply warehoused – they were not provided with an opportunity for programming, thus, breeding better criminals during incarceration. However, with today’s strong focus on providing opportunities, offenders are now being equipped with the tools to be successful upon release. They are being provided with tools that directly assist in overcoming the barriers to entry into the community. Furthermore, according to Dr. John Reitzel, with the Department of Criminal Justice at California State University, San Bernardino, “Both violent and property crime started dropping in Virginia a few years before the state abolished parole. And, we must keep in mind that nationally, crime started dropped in 1993 too.”

The examination of recidivism rates also can provide some insight, however, this too is fairly complex. Currently, Virginia has the second lowest recidivism rate in the nation. However, that rate is calculated if an individual gets released from prison and then goes back to prison – this means they are convicted of a crime and sentenced to more than 12 months. So, if someone reoffends and is found guilty but sentenced to 11 months, they are not seen to have recidivated. I believe this truly presents a problem when truly trying to define success. From working in a jail full time, I can tell you the true recidivism rate in Virginia is much higher than this statistic claims.

There are also problems present with the implementation and practice of the abolition of parole. Currently there are more than 37,000 individuals incarcerated in Virginia, of whom about 3,500 were eligible for parole in 2013 because their crimes and imprisonment occurred before the abolition in 1995. The Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants-Virginia, Inc. (Virginia C.U.R.E.) claim that all of these prisoners were sentenced by prosecutors and judges with the assumption that the length of their sentence would be subject to mitigation through the consideration of parole. However, because parole was abolished, the likelihood of receiving it is slim. In 2012, the Parole Board heard 3,156 cases, of which only 116 were granted parole, according to Virginia C.U.R.E. – this is just 3.7 percent of those who were eligible. However, Bill Muse former Chairman of the Parole Board under the McDonnell administration had slightly different views: “The rate during McDonnell administration was about 4%. About 92% of those who were eligible were serving long sentences on extreme cases. The “easy” ones were already released.”

At least 44 percent of the denials were attributed to the “serious nature and circumstances of the crime.” As such, many prisoners were receiving this same response year after year. Moreover, many denials from the Board did not suggest their own comments or guidelines, such as changes in behavior, their motivational levels, development of education, release plans, or employment skills attained while imprisoned.  However, in 2013 legislation was passed and then signed by Governor McDonnell requiring the Parole Board to list specific reasons why an individual was denied so the individual would know what they should or should not be focusing on.

Muse explained: “Every parole case is entirely different and you have to look at them differently. One of the common questions asked is, ‘He got parole and has a similar offense doing the same number of years as my son, so why won’t you let him go?’ But we have to look at them differently – there aren’t two offenses that are exactly the same – one type of murder may occur because of a drug deal gone bad and the other an execution style robbery – even if they have the same sentence, they are still very different. We also have to take into consideration when the crime occurred – a 16- or 17-year-old would be considered differently than someone older because of their age when committed.”

Muse explained how the parole board also examines things the offender was involved with while in prison and if they took advantage of each opportunity they had, such as work, religion, or schooling. Disciplinary issues while incarcerated are also considered – did they cause staff a hard time, did they obey the rules? “If you can’t behave in prison, why would we expect you to behave when you are on the street,” Muse remarked. The Board also looked at factors associated with release – supportive family, housing, under what circumstances will they live (in same neighborhood), will they continue with addiction treatment if needed, among others?  “All of these things are taken into consideration – and more really. All of these factors contribute to why each case is treated individually.

The Board does not personally interview the prisoner or confer with the prisoner’s counselor and only allows one member of the Board to meet with a family member or other representative.  In over 70 percent of other states, however, Board panels carry out inmate interviews. Under the Board procedures currently followed, “some parole eligible inmates are serving longer terms than some non-parole inmates convicted of the same crime and sentenced under the state’s post 1995 sentencing guidelines” Many believe that the Board’s behaviors are inconsistent with the original intention of the General Assembly, through retroactively abolishing parole for prisoners who came in before 1995.

On the other hand, according to Jane Alford, who has worked in the field for over 33 years, “There is no meaningful system to evaluate cases for release. The information collected regarding an inmate and progress made while incarcerated seems to be ignored. Programs and therapeutic goals seem to have no impact at all. Decades go by with some inmates having no infractions, completing all possible programs available, receiving excellent work and other evaluations, and having a good release plan, and they are remain in prison. Often psychological testing, risk assessments, and sex offender evaluations are conducted by outside national and internationally known experts in the field. These licensed practitioners with a medical or doctoral degree have more relative knowledge and experience than the entire Parole Board collectively, yet their opinions are often disregarded and disrespected. One board member commented to a retained forensic psychologist that she thought his work was ‘OK,’ unlike the evaluations provided by many other practitioners. This particular psychologist has done over 7,000 evaluations for the prosecution and defense and is retained by DOC. He is far better than OK. Other highly credentialed professionals are seemingly considered sub-standard by a member who has no relative degree, training, history of publication, or involvement and study of clinical trials. Another comment publicly made by a board member was that inmates convicted of sexually based offenses were ‘not going to be released’ despite the Governor’s clear directive otherwise. Inmates, particularly geriatrics meeting all the criteria for release after serving long sentences, still are not released. Many test out as zero little risk with the institutional psychologist and psychiatrist requesting release and their opinions are ignored as well. Only 53 inmates have made Geriatric Release in the past 13 years when there are between 350 and 400 eligible. This population is the most expensive and the lowest risk. The parole process is politically based with no reasonable rationale to back up decisions. The system is entirely broken.”

There are also budgetary reasons why taking parole more seriously is necessary.  First, in 2007, Virginia was in the highest of all states in the United States in the population growth of prisons, which added 1,867 new prisoners.  The annual cost to imprison one individual annually was $23,000. Further, 6.7 percent of Virginia’s general budget fund and 11.7 percent of the employees are devoted to the prison system.  In 2015, Virginia is expected to spend $1 billion in prison related costs. With the continued budget short falls in Virginia, the increasing prison population is putting a further strain on the budget and depriving other important areas, such as education and transportation.

Further exasperating the issue is geriatric release, which was briefly mentioned above by Alford. Geriatric release is for elderly people; if an individual is 60 years old and has served 10 years or 65 and served 5 years, he or she is eligible to petition the board for parole.  This applies even if convicted after 1995 when parole was abolished. Muse explained: “We didn’t have a whole lot of those granted, but the statistics are pretty skewed because those who were eligible we typically let go under regular parole and not geriatric review.  The statistics show we didn’t let many of those folks go, but in actuality more of them got out than shown because they were released on regular parole.”

Various interest groups and lobbyist organizations are working extremely hard to curb these rates and fix this problem. However, it is extremely difficult to gain support. The Governor and the Parole Board do not want to be seen as soft on crime. Moreover, these individuals do not want to take a risk. If someone is released on parole, and recidivates by raping or killing an individual, it would fall back on either the Parole Board or the Governor who appointments parole board members.  The situations discussed previously are those that are all too familiar, and no one wants to be held accountable for such a situation. Moreover, victims, their families, and friends lobby strong against releasing prisoners back into society.

Does former Chairman Muse think it was a success? “I think it’s good in some respects – there are some people who shouldn’t get out or serve long sentences. It is fairer for juries who are giving sentences to know what they would serve if sentencing them. Unintended consequences are that the prison population has grown substantially. Particularly now we are seeing prison population aging up – a lot older average population – and with all of the medical expenses involved, it is more expensive to house inmates now than when there was parole.”

So the question remains, what is the answer and how is this situation resolved? I do not believe that the goal should be to release all ‘post-1995’ inmates back into society, nor does it mean that offenders shouldn’t have to suffer the consequences of their actions through incarceration. However, giving each prisoner a fair hearing, which should include factors previously discussed, including inmate interviews and an explanation, would be a good start and a step in the right direction. Although there are some prisoners who absolutely deserve to remain behind bars for a long time, there are circumstances where, if given a proper hearing, it would be found that the individual deserves to be placed back into society with certain guidelines. Furthermore, with the strong efforts related to rehabilitation and re-entry being put forth by the Virginia Department of Corrections, offenders are more ready today than ever to have a successful re-entry back into the community.

Muse had a further suggestion that would be advantageous for the Commonwealth to consider: “There should be some type of blend where those with non-violent offenses or shorter sentences may have a chance at parole. Someone may get 20 years for burglary and be non-violent, such as breaking into someone’s garage. It could be their first offense and they have a good prison record – that person should have a chance of getting out a little earlier. Also, drug offenders – they probably deserve a chance of getting out a little earlier.” Muse goes further to clarify: “I don’t think it would be great to bring back parole all together, but we may want to bring it back for certain offenses – and it would help the prison problem some. They can be released and supervised in the community instead of in prison.”

Sarah Scarbrough is internal program director for the City of Richmond sheriff’s department. This article was published originally at www.sarahscarbrough.com.

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9 responses to “Parole Abolition — Did It Work?

  1. I appreciate the comprehensive discussion but it appears that crime rates have reduced across the board in the US with all sorts of reasons given – like Community Policing.

    but I have a couple of thoughts.

    1. if someone is not sentenced to life in prison – they do get out.

    2. – if you fill out an employment application – when you get to the part about ever convicted of a felony , etc.. similar questions -for most employment you are done – end of story.

    3. – I’m seriously concerned about how young and dumb youngsters who fall into the wrong crowd after high school get sucked into the criminal justice system and end up sliced and diced – i.e. converted into permanent criminals with permanent entitlements.. etc..

    4. – “success” to me is measured in how many released get jobs .. I don’t think it’s good enough to say they have not re-offended. just my view.

    5. – there are some good jobs for folks who may not be suitable for other jobs – including working with food banks, etc… places that need help where even if we have to pay entitlements is better than having them loose on the streets with nothing to do…and inevitably end up with few alternatives than getting back into activities that will put them back with the law.

    all bets are off on violent folks but my question is – does our criminal justice system draw in non-violent criminals that then turn them into violent criminals? we should know the answer to that.. because all this other effort we are engaging in is for naught if our current system actually creates more hardened criminals.

    but I do thank you for the article. It’s thought provoking and substantiative.

  2. While I tend to agree that “violent” versus “non-violent” crime is an important distinction in punishment and release, I feel differently about fraud. The information age has opened new paths for dirt bags to swindle and steal from people, including the elderly, those with little education or individuals who don’t understand English. IMO, these crooks should be treating differently from other “non-violent offenders.”

  3. I guess I’d rather see – at the least – an honest separation of violent from non-violent – and we know why we don’t – it’s money – and that disturbs me as much or more than the parole issue because I’m concerned when a young kid gets drawn into the criminal justice system – if we let him get put in with more hardened criminals – he’s not going to recover .. and we ..are not either because we pay for not only the room and board of the imprisoned – we pay for their entitlements when they get out – and we pay for the crimes they commit which brings them back to prison for the room & board we pay for.

    We have some major double standards. Bernie Madoff who stole millions gets housed at a country-club prison with no violent thugs. just other white collar scum.. but the 18 yr old that steals – gets sent out to co-habit with more violent thugs.

    we are in a little bit of denial about the way we incarcerate in this country IMHO. We have one of the highest incarceration rates on the planet – and if we were to believe conventional wisdom – the countries that have lower incarceration rates should, in theory, be crime-infested… but the opposite is true which implicates our system… we worry about the violent ones (which we should) but we don’t worry about the younger ones getting drawn into the system and turned into violent offenders .. “trained”.

    there’s a show on TV, God knows why MSN thinks it’s consistent with the rest of their programming – but I urge everyone here to look at one episode to give you an idea of life in prison – and the never-ending efforts by some of of the offenders to make weapons – home-made knives – to use on those who refuse to do what the most violent ones want done.

    all in all .. looking at how other countries do prisons – I think we do them wrong.

  4. Larry, I struggle understanding your argument about entitlements for adults without minor children. It is my impression that these individuals don’t qualify for many, if any at all. What am I missing? Thanks.

  5. TMT – anyone without a job has access to entitlements whether it’s food stamps or ER care… or Section 8 housing.. but were also paying for parole services .

    ex-prisoners have to have a place to live, food, and medical care… even if unemployed – unless you want them wandering the streets shoplifting, drug dealing, etc.

    the question is – what do you want to do with folks who have a prison records and are released?

    what’s the plan if they cannot get a job?

    is it the same plan if people need medical care and don’t have insurance?

    ;-0

  6. I’m a strong believer in second chances. Everyone screws up; some way more than others. I support job training & GEDs for prison inmates that are likely to be released. I also think businesses should look for ways they can employ one-time offenders. Boot camps, rather that prison confinement, may be better for young, non-violent, first offenders. But that also requires screening to ensure violent offenders, including sex offenders, are properly screened out. The Commonwealth needs to protect its residents.

    • TMT- there are few second chances for folks with prison records.

      you say “protect Virginians”

      I agree.

      but do you protect Virginians, when your own criminal justice system is responsible for producing more violent criminals?

      in your zeal to “protect” have you thought about how, if we do it wrong – we actually become enablers of producing more crime.

      • I think punishment for youthful offenders depends on the facts. While most juveniles are not tried as adults, others are when they have committed heinous and violent acts and they are closer to 18.

        Youths with long rap sheets need to be punished harder than the kid who has only a minor, non-violent offense or two. Two messages need to be sent to these people – one, you will be punished for committing crime, which might require some boot camp, house arrest or even short time in jail; and two, if you stop the bad behavior and try to get your act together, we will help you. But if you don’t change, get used to bars and restrictions.

        • some youthful offenders who are not violent – get turned into violent criminals when drawn into the criminal justice system which is not focused on rehabilitation but rather punishment.

          they go in as misguided who have made dumb mistakes and come out unemployable and as hardened criminals equipped with the skills needed to visit violence on others.

          our system is broke. our system creates criminals.

          over and over – we have folks who defend the status quo – even though we pay enormous costs in pretending that its the best option available.

          we not only have more people in prison than virtually any other country in the world – after we incarcerate them and give them a graduate degree in criminology – we release them and they live among us – often unable to get a job – and either receive entitlements or take from others or both.

          people who cannot get a job – still live – they still exist – what do they do for money? what would you do?

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