The purpose of parole is to allow “offenders to reintegrate into and become valuable members of our communities” (Gondles, 2003). Offenders serve a prearranged amount of the sentence, and then meet with a parole board to determine if they’re ready to be released. The parole board reviews a report that details the prisoner’s “social, criminal, medical, psychological, institutional adjustment, and alcohol and drug use histories.”(Parole division, 2006) Once released, prisoners are required to meet with parole officers in order to determine if they’re meeting the terms of the parole (keeping a job, staying away from other offenders, living in a pre-determined area).
The most frequent complaint about the parole process is that prisoners are released back to the same environment from which they came, and this makes it more likely for the parolee to re-offend and end up back in prison. In fact, some parolees are required to live in low-income, high-crime areas where they are most likely to fall in with other criminals. More importantly, it is difficult for any individual with a prison record to find a job, and parole boards offer no assistance in this task.
Parole boards, under current guidelines, are not qualified to determine if a prisoner is ready for release. In Washington, D.C. in 1998, the parole board was under censure due to the fact that they had released a prisoner on parole; that prisoner committed a crime, and the parole board failed to put the offender back in prison. The offender subsequently killed a young woman. During his investigation, Supreme Court Chief Judge Eugene Hamilton determined, “failed to regularly issue parole violation warrants on parolees charged with additional crimes. He also found that the parole board gave erroneous information and 20 percent of parolees were charged with serious crimes within 50 days of being placed on parole.” (Keary, 1998)
Judges make sentencing decisions based, in part, on a presentencing investigation. The purpose is to measure the risk that the offender will commit additional crimes. This investigation is usually conducted by the prosecutor’s office, but on occasion the parole board will conduct an independent investigation While the specific contents of this investigation varies from state to state, in general, the investigation report usually includes the following information: a description of the crime; any prior criminal record; information on the offender’s marital status and family; any impact statement from the victim; information on employment and economic status, education, substance-abuse history, and mental and physical health (Corrections: definitions; glossary, 2001).
The circumstances surrounding the commission of a crime are usually referred to as aggravating or mitigating circumstances (Champion, 1994, p. 39). An aggravating circumstance would be a particularly brutal attack; a mitigating circumstance would be if the offender was mentally ill at the time of the crime. If the offender has a prior criminal record, this provides proof that the offender is likely to re-offend if released. An impact statement from the victim is intended to impress upon the court the seriousness of the crime and how the victim was affected by it. The judge might also take into account if the offender is married, has children, has a steady job and an education – these would be mitigating factors that might lead to a lighter sentence. On the other hand, substance abuse would be considered an aggravating factor. The final purpose of the presentencing investigation report is to provide the parole board with information when it is time for release. They will check the report to see where the prisoner was at upon being incarcerated (whether they were violent, abusing drugs, etc.) and if they have made progress in dealing with their problems since then.
The purpose of sentencing guidelines is to prevent unfair sentencing practices. One of the benefits of sentencing guidelines is that all offenders are treated equally:
…assuring reasonable consistency in sentencing while allowing judges to take account of meaningful differences between cases. These have also successfully reduced unwarranted racial, gender, and geographical disparities, provided a tool for implementing changes in sentencing policy…(Tonry, 2004, p.15)
In that respect, sentencing guidelines meet their prescribed goals by preventing an offender from being more harshly sentenced due to public outrage, or from imposing a sentence that is too light. One of the drawbacks of sentencing guidelines is that there are certain crimes that occur more frequently among certain races. For example, blacks are more likely to sell crack cocaine, and the sentencing guidelines for this crime, in the end, only apply to blacks.
Mandatory minimum sentencing most often applies to drug crimes. The purpose is to put the drug dealers in prison and get the drugs off of the street. The problem with mandatory minimum sentencing is that it does not always achieve its purpose. For example, drug abusers are put in prison rather than being diverted to a drug treatment center. This can lead to the offender going back to drugs once released from prison. “A principal reason why the sentences are not more cost effective is the high cost of incarceration,” said Caulkins, a Carnegie Mellon University professor. (Randall, 1997)
This form of sentencing does not achieve its goals often enough to be effective. Even in mandatory minimum sentencing cases, offenders are still permitted to testify against another offender in return for a lighter sentence or no sentence at all. When this happens, it completely violates the purpose – some drug dealers are put back on the street while others are subject to minimum sentences. Mitigating factors are not taken into account in these cases (Stewart, 2000, p. 143).
Callahan, N (2005 Sep). Informal, hidden procedures define injustice. Retrieved January 16, 2007, from The November Coalition Web site: http://www.november.org/razorwire/2005-01/Hidden.html
Champion, D. J. (1994). A Criminal Justice Sourcebook A Criminal Justice Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
(2001). Corrections: definitions; glossary. Retrieved January 16, 2007, from State of Michigan Web site: http://www.mi.gov/corrections/0,1607,7-119–17490–,00.html
Gondles, J. A. (2003, February). The Probation and Parole System Needs Our Help to Succeed. Corrections Today, 65, 8.
Keary, J. (1998, April 18). D.C. Officials Ignored Warnings on Parolees. The Washington Times, p. 1.
(2006 Aug 21). Parole division — review and release processing. Retrieved January 16, 2007, from Texas Department of Criminal Justice Web site: http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/parole/parole-rvwrelease.htm
Randall, G (1997). Study: mandatory minimum drug sentences don’t work. Retrieved January 16, 2007, from CNN.com Web site: http://www.cnn.com/US/9705/12/mandatory.sentencing/
Stewart, J. (2000). 9. Effects of the Drug War. In After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century, Lynch, T. (Ed.) (pp. 141-null24). Washington, DC: Cato Institute.
Tonry, M. (Ed.). (2000). The Handbook of Crime & Punishment. New York: Oxford University Press.