The Role of Parole in Criminal Justice

What is parole and why are we interested in something that most Americans have little knowledge of? Does the American society understand what parole is or do they assume that parolees fit the general criminal stereotype? Is this a system even something that is worth the time invested or are we “beating a dead horse” by continuing it? * The history of parole goes back as far as the state of NY in 1817 when they created a system of “good time law”. In 1876, New York State passed a law that created a system of "indeterminate" sentences that set a minimum and maximum term and permitted parole release of those who had served their minimum sentence.

The prisoners selected by prison officials for parole were required to report monthly to citizen volunteers known as Guardians (History of Parole, n.d.). I recently had the privilege of interviewing Parole Officer Kristina Vessar from the Missouri Department of Corrections District 5 in a past class about the pros, cons, ins and outs of the parole system.

According to her (personal interview, February 18, 2011) the parole system is used as “a dangling carrot” for incarcerated offenders. If they behave, meet the parole board’s requirements and show that they have been rehabilitated they have a chance at parole. If they in some way do not show that they are willing to become a productive member of society by bettering themselves and showing that they have changed; they lose that chance of supervised freedom.

The Parole system has been put in place by the government to encourage good behavior for incarcerated offenders and to give them a chance at freedom. In our textbook we studied the crime triangle and how it shows the 3 things necessary for crimes to be committed. (Champion, 2007, page 420) Parole in a sense takes care of one side of the triangle and in some cases partially takes care of a second side as well. By taking out one side of the crime triangle we reduce the risk of crimes being committed by paroled offenders.

The side parole takes care of is the Handler and Offender side. The Handler or parole officer is in charge of making sure that the Offender is staying productive and making sure that they meet the requirements of their parole like getting a job or substituting it by getting an education or job training. The parole officer is an active part in the offender’s life and is there to keep them out of trouble.

There are cases where the parole system is actually helping the second side of the triangle; these are cases of sex offenders. The second side of the triangle is the Manager and Place side. In this case the Manager is not the owner or manager of a certain location; it is their Parole Officer.

In the case of sex offenders they are required by their parole to stay out of certain areas. Often these areas are areas where children congregate like parks, schools, and day cares. The Parole Officer ensures that the Offender does not reside within the set limits of those locations, thereby reducing the amount of temptation that the Offender has to re-offend. Is the Parole system a cost effective system? According to a 1994 L.A.

Times interview done with a parole officer, it costs the taxpayers 20,000 dollars per year to incarcerate someone. It only costs about 2,500 dollars per year to keep someone on parole that means that if the parole system were abolished, the penal system would end up costing the state at least 8 times more annually! (Valley Interview, 1994) That interview was in 1994, and that was the cost then! In 2008, according to an OLR Research Report, the total cost of housing an incarcerated offender for one year in Connecticut is $44,165.00 (Cost of incarceration and cost of a career criminal, 2008).

* According to Officer Vessar (personal interview, February 18, 2011) the cost of keeping a criminal in jail or prison in the state of Missouri today is approximately 60 dollars a day, while keeping a parolee on parole has an approximate cost of 3 dollars a day. Another thing she pointed out was the fact that ex-convicts do need help getting started when they get back on the outside. They qualify for food stamps, and often for other social programs.

Those other social program costs are not included in the 3 dollars a day that is given as a cost of supervision. So in reality no one really knows if we are actually spending more or less on parolees by having them on the outside. So is our current parole system effective? An effective parole system always has good re-entry programs for offenders. If a state doesn’t have effective re-entry programs, the offender will have a greater chance at being re-incarcerated.

Missouri has an offender re-entry program that was signed into law on September 21, 2005. It established “a permanent inter-agency Missouri Reentry Program (MRP) Steering Team comprised of senior leaders from the Departments of Corrections, Mental Health, Social Services, Health and Senior Services, Economic Development, Elementary and Secondary Education, Revenue and the Office of the State Courts Administrator. Membership also includes community organizations representing crime victims, law enforcement, treatment providers and the faith-based community.

This Executive Order defines the MRP Steering Team’s mission as the successful integration of offender reentry principles and practices in state agencies and communities resulting in partnerships that enhance offender self-sufficiency, reduce re-incarceration, and improve public safety” (www. www.communitycaringcouncil.org, 2010) * MRP helps offenders with job interviews, getting state issued identification, birth certificates and any type of documents required for getting a job or into school.

The local community has paired with local churches and religious organizations to help with programs like alcoholics anonymous, and other substance abuse help programs. They also work with the local VoTech School to give haircuts and pedicures to parolees right after they get out of prison to help with their personal appearance to increase their chances of getting a job. Several organizations have come together to create something called the clothes closet to help parolees get decent, gently used clothes for job interviews.

* Most states, along with the state of Missouri, recommend that parolees who don’t have a job get in touch with the local career center. The career centers offer resume’ building help, job seeking tips, a number of other options to help them get back to becoming a productive citizen. The parole officers are also able to track how much time is spent there by their parolees doing job searches. It helps to prove to the community and the parole board that they are doing their best to re-invent themselves.

One of the biggest problems for this program is the fact that society has a big problem with parolees. When we meet someone and for some reason we find out they are an ex-convict and out on parole, we automatically think the worst and make sure our wallets are still in our pockets tighten the grip on our purses. The fact is that no matter who you are or what we’ve done, we all deserve a second chance at life. We’ve all let someone down, lied to someone, and been lied to. Yet somehow we almost always forgive that person and move on. Unless someone is a habitual thief, there’s no reason to trust that person unless he proves otherwise.

I know some good people who are on parole for some really dumb things they did when they were in college. For instance, one of my friends who recently was released from parole, got caught growing mushrooms in his dorm room. Obviously they weren’t for frying and eating on hamburgers! He had been pursuing a degree in medical science, but had to forego his intended degree for something else because he was not going to be able to get a job working with drugs with a drug charge on his record.

In my friend’s situation, what he did was incredibly stupid. But what bothers me is that during his time on probation, he had a ridiculous time of trying to find a part time job while on parole. Nobody took the time of day to even try to help him.

Another aspect we need to look at in the search to see if the Parole system is effective or not is the recidivism rate among offenders. Is the program effective in turning offenders into law abiding citizens, or are we wasting our time? “Concern over the cost of corrections has forced policy makers to consider alternatives to incarceration for drug offenders and make efforts to improve the performance of community supervision.

The challenge is to find ways to keep drug offenders out of jail and prison without compromising public safety. Hawaii has achieved this goal, using an innovative low-cost approach that dramatically improves probationer compliance and reduces drug use and crime. The program is called Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, known as HOPE” (HOPE for Probation, 2011).

The HOPE program is a pilot program that was put into place by the state of Hawaii to deal with the rising cost of dealing with recidivism among drug users. According to the Prison Fellowship website, only 21% of the drug users that were involved in the HOPE program were re-arrested in comparison with 47% of similar offenders who were not in the program (2009). If we were able to put together a program like this for other categories of offenders such as car thieves, petty thieves, etc. We would be able to reduce our recidivism rate substantially.

According to a study published in 2002 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the “highest re-arrest rates were robbers (70.2%), burglars (74.0%), larcenists (74.6%), motor vehicle thieves (78.8%), those in prison for possessing or selling stolen property (77.4%), and those in prison for possessing, using, or selling illegal weapons (70.2%)”

(Recidivism of Prisoners released in 1994, 2009) It is crimes like this that we need to crack down on and make re-arrest punishments a lot harsher. According to Officer Vessar (personal interview, February 18, 2011) many re-offenders are given a slap on the wrist and given parole again within a few weeks or months depending on the infraction. While it is a cost effective program, it needs a new look when it comes to re-offenders.

Harsher punishments for re-offenders, and parole that isn’t given out so easily would be a good start. I know that prison overcrowding is an issue along with the cost of keeping offenders incarcerated, but if we took parole more seriously maybe it would help the crime rate if people realized that they wouldn’t be given parole after half the time they were sentenced for.

* How do parole officers track their parolees? How do they know that they are where they say they are? There are a number of different ways that the parole officers keep tabs on parolees. In Missouri it depends on the risk level of the offender as to what resources are used to track their parolees. If they are a low risk, there is little to no tracking of the parolee other than the occasional phone call.

As the risk level goes up, the tracking goes up as well, a medium risk parolee’s tracking depends on several things. If he has kept in contact with the Parole Officer and done everything he was asked to do, then all he has to do is keep in contact with the Officer. If he doesn’t contact the Officer for several months and isn’t at his registered address then they might put a GPS unit on him the next time he makes contact to see where he goes and monitor his movements.

A high risk parolee, such as a violent sex offender, is automatically given a gps unit, and is required to check in as often as every day. * The majority of the people that violate parole are often put on the old style house arrest units that connect through the phone line. If a parolee keeps violating parole they give them time to go to work, but give them a curfew. If they work from 8 to 5 they might be able to get out between 0730 and 530 pm or some other arranged time. If they fail to check in, often there is a warrant out for their arrest and they are arrested by the police force.

* There is another way of keeping tabs on them. If a police officer pulls them over they often report back to the Parole Officer on what they find. The police officer lets them know if they found anything and how cooperative they were during the incident. Are there holes in the system? Absolutely, but what government system doesn’t? It is up to our generation to see that the future of the parole system continues to develop the necessary tools and funding stay there to ensure that “the carrot continues to dangle.” Without that carrot, our prisoners have nothing to work towards and I fear that would be the start of a new low in a vital part of our criminal justice system.

With parole officers giving speeches around the community, I believe that the general population will become more educated about the issues facing parolees and become more willing to help. With a more willing community we would have more options open not only to parolees but also to the parole system.

All in all, the parole system needs some work, but without it we lose a valuable tool in our criminal justice toolbox. We lose the option of giving a “well deserving” offender another chance at turning his life around before getting too involved in the prison system. But more importantly we lose the ability to “dangle a carrot” for the offenders good behavior. *

A bigger part of the solution to any of the problems that we see in the Parole system is what am I as a citizen of my community doing to help my community welcome those who need a second chance? If I see a need and don’t step up, maybe no one else will have the courage to do so either. Then I have just refused my “neighbor” a helping hand and I am a worse person for it.

References Champion, D. J. (2007). Crime prevention in America . Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall. Division of Youth Services. (n.d.). Missouri Department of Social Services. Retrieved April 20, 2011, from www.dss.mo.gov/re/pdf/dys/dysfy08.pdf Hawkin, A. (n.d.). HOPE for Probation: How Hawaii Improved Behavior with High-Probability, Low-Severity Sanctions. The Institute on Global Drug Policy and Practice :: Volume 5, Issues 1 - Spring 2011. Retrieved April 25, 2011, from http://www.globaldrugpolicy.org/4/3/3.php History of Parole in New York State . (n.d.). New York Division of Parole. Retrieved February 20, 2011, from https://www.parole.state.ny.us/introhistory.html Langan, P., & Levin, D. (n.d.). Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) - Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) . Retrieved April 25, 2011, from http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=1134 Missouri — Right on Crime. (n.d.). Right on Crime —. Retrieved April 20, 2011, from http://www.rightoncrime.com/reform-in-action/state-initiatives/missouri/ Reinhart, C. (2008, February 8). COST OF INCARCERATION AND COST OF A CAREER CRIMINAL. Connecticut General Assembly . Retrieved April 22, 2011, from http://www.cga.ct.gov/2008/rpt/2008-R-0099.htm Slayter, E. (1994, November 15). Valley Interview : Parole System Still Makes a Cost-Effective Impact, Leader Says - Los Angeles Times. Featured Articles From The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 17, 2011, from http://articles.latimes.com/1994-11-15/local/me-62946_1_parole-agent Wiley, K. (2009, December 17). Results in on Hawaii's Opportunity for Probation with Enforcement (HOPE). Prison Fellowship. Retrieved April 25, 2011, from https://www.justicefellowship.org/news-and-events/13882-evaluation-of-a-community-supervision-strategy-reveals-promising-results