Parole Reversal

A surprisingly simple fix for our dysfunctional prison system.

| Mon Mar. 7, 2005 4:00 AM EST
To understand much of what's wrong with America's criminal corrections system, look no farther than a day in the life of a typical parole officer. He works, most likely, in a small, cramped office in the middle of an old, dilapidated neighborhood, earning much less than the average police officer or prison guard. An ever-growing pile of caseload files, for men and women released early from prison to serve out their sentences on parole, sit stacked on his desk—in parts of New York City, some officers handle a mind-boggling 200 cases at any given time.

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Now consider the cases. As a condition of their release, all parolees must observe strict behavioral standards—no drug use, no associating with other known felons, hold a job or be actively looking for one, maintain a permanent address, come on time to all parole appointments—or they risk going back to prison. And yet many parolees have never achieved goals like these at any point in their lives: on average, 80 percent have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, 14 percent have reported suffering from some mental illness, and 12 percent have experienced periods of homelessness prior to their arrest. Nor do they receive much help: once released from prison, the parolees have meager access to employment or job-training programs, most of which have fallen prey to state-budget crunches over the past decade, and their case manager has no way of requesting more funds from the parole agency for drug treatment, job training programs, or even additional officers.

Inevitably, of course, the infractions start piling up. A missed appointment. A smoked joint. Another missed appointment. A speeding ticket. What does the officer do? Few agencies want to give a parolee a second chance after a failed drug test, on the off-chance that that person will go off and commit a crime. The public outcry, after all, would be deafening. Meanwhile, the agency is under constant pressure to reduce costs and keep under budget. It costs a fair bit for an officer to check up on a parolee who just missed an appointment—and that might be merely one among hundreds of cases on his or her desk. On the other hand, it costs the parole agency nothing, nothing at all, to send the parolee back to prison on a technical violation. No one complains. No one asks questions. The prison system has a virtually unlimited budget. Who wouldn't make that choice?


Of all the problems with the U.S. criminal correction system, why should anyone bother paying attention to parole agencies? Surely, one might say, the problems go much deeper than that. There are the raw numbers: The United States locks up a greater percentage of its population than any other country on earth. Or the inequity: 1 in 3 black males, and 1 in 6 Hispanic males will spend some time in prison over the course of a lifetime, compared to 1 in 17 white males. Recent social research has described the vast and largely detrimental effects of high incarceration rates on local communities: children lose fathers and/or mothers, families fall apart, and while ex-prisoners often find it difficult to find jobs and re-enter society. Meanwhile, state budgets are feeling the strain: between 1988 and 2001, the corrections system was the only government function that grew as a percentage of state budgets—swallowing money that could have been used for education, or infrastructure, or public assistance. All of this would be worth it, of course, if the all-devouring prison network actually reduced crime. But the evidence on this score, while still subject to dispute, is admittedly slim.

To see where parole fits into this picture, consider a 2002 Department of Justice study on recidivism, the largest ever undertaken, which found that 51.8 percent of criminals end up back in prison within three years. (There's not a lot of solid data on recidivism, but it doesn't appear that this number has dropped at all since a previous study done a decade before.) Of those, over half (26.4 percent) are sent back not for criminal behavior, but for violating a technical condition of parole—a missed appointment, a failed drug test, not landing a job. In many states, as many as a third of all prison admissions each year result from decisions like that of our fictional parole officer described above.

In a new book, Downsizing Prisons, Michael Jacobson offers an innovative approach to reducing the strain on America's overcrowded prisons: namely, by fixing the dysfunctional parole systems in states around the country. Having first worked in New York City's Budget Office, Jacobson became Commissioner of the New York City Departments of Correction and Probation in 1995, and saw firsthand how difficult it would be to reform the prison system—and at the same time, how wholly necessary.

As an ex-bureaucrat, Jacobson understands a key reality: When it comes to crime control, sensible policy rarely wins out. Experts and academics may agree that state correctional policies are misguided, and they may even reach a wide consensus on alternative rehabilitation methods that work, like "community policing" or college degree programs in prison. But laws are usually influenced by public outrage and horrifying anecdotes, like the murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, which led to California's "three strikes" sentencing policy. Moreover, prison growth has a powerful constituency: private prison contractors and the mighty corrections unions may not agree on much, but they both have a keen interest in keeping prisons expanding indefinitely, and lobby accordingly. State legislators, for their part, know full well how the budget game is played, and realize that in times of budgetary belt-tightening, any proposal to invest more money in prisoners—no matter how well-intentioned or far-sighted—while schools and health services are being cut, is the surest way to lose one's seat. Radical change becomes nearly impossible.

Nevertheless, Jacobson argues that the recent wave of state budget crunches—the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently tallied state deficits at a whopping $190 billion over the past three years—may have created an opening for more incremental reforms. (Indeed, even the Montana state legislature, typically one of the "toughest" on crime, recently vowed to rethink its prison budget.) It's also worth noting that since September 11, crime has largely faded as a hot-button issue among voters, according to a Pew Survey released last month, and polls show that Americans no longer value a "tough on crime" stance quite so much as they once did. Even President Bush, in his 2005 State of the Union address, paid lip service to "prisoners' rights" issues such as special training for public defenders, a stance that would have been political suicide just ten years ago. The foundation for a new order has been laid, and the most practical place to start, Jacobson argues, is with parole agencies.

One number should immediately jump out at any would-be reformer. The cost, on average, of supervising one person on probation or parole is about $200 per year, as compared to $20,000 for keeping that same person behind bars. And yet prisons continue to get the lion's share of state funding. Moreover, it's much easier for state governors to reorganize parole agencies—which answer primarily to the executive branch—than to ram changes in sentencing policy through legislatures. So why does the current system persist? In conversations with state legislators around the country, Jacobson noticed a simple pattern: politicians simply "do not recognize that technical parole violations are costing their states so much money." Yet differences among state parole policies can be stark. In Mississippi, for instance, 83 percent of parolees successfully complete parole, whereas in California, the success rate is a mere 21 percent. It's no surprise, then, that a whopping 58 percent of all new admissions to California prisons are parole violators, versus 14 percent in Mississippi.

Jacobson argues that discrepancies like these can't be accounted for by the sorts of criminals found in each state, or even discrepancies in funding among parole agencies (California actually spends far more per parolee), the difference lies purely with "policies, procedures, and organizational cultures." So what actually works? Jacobson knows better than to lay out his Platonic ideal policy. Hence, he doesn't advise states to eliminate parole supervision altogether, as some have proposed—it's too politically risky. Nor does he think, realistically, that legislatures can get away with investing millions more in drug treatment and job training, even if that makes sense.

Instead, he proposes several relatively easy changes that can make a real difference. For starters, states should front-load existing parole resources into the first several months after release, since "parolees tend to violate quickly." The money can be focused on early-transition programs, and after the first year, when chances of success increase, monitoring can be reduced. Also, more sophisticated risk instruments (formulas like those used by insurance companies) can help offices predict which parolees will need more supervision than others. Jacobson argues that "incarceration should be a decision of last resort" for parolees, and technical violations ought to be met with incremental sanctions, rather than automatic prison time. Finally, he notes, states will see more parolees succeed if they reduce many of the barriers prisoners face upon reentering society. Felons should not be barred from voting, nor ex-prisoners prevented from securing jobs or receiving food stamps, college loans, or other public assistance.

What makes proposals like these so exciting is that they're mostly quite boring. That is, they're precisely the wonky, technocratic, yet ultimately realistic, sort of proposals that can actually pass. Indeed, Jacobson writes the last quarter of his book almost exclusively for state policymakers, offering step-by-step suggestions for navigating the complexities of budgetary reform. In California, for instance, he suggests that legislators put a "cap" on the length of time that technical parole violators stay in prison. The savings here—up to $190 million—could then be partially reinvested in drug treatment and employment training, with the rest freed up for non-corrections programs. Likewise, if California sent fewer technical parole violators back to prison immediately, the state could save up to $750 million. Again, a portion of this money could be reinvested in community-based programs for ex-felons, thus further improving criminal rehabilitation programs, while the rest could be spent elsewhere. What's not to love?

Jacobson's book comes at exactly the right time. State legislatures around the country are currently debating various ways to reduce their prison populations, from reducing sentences for non-violent offenders (in Montana) to increasing funds for prisoner rehabilitation (in Massachusetts) to expanding private prisons (in Georgia). As yet, however, only a few states—most notably Texas—have begun looking more carefully at one of the easiest and most sensible places to start: the overburdened parole agencies that are filling prisons with technical violators. As Leighton Iles, the director of a new and Jacobson-esque probation program in Fort Bend, Texas, told a local paper: "What we are doing here is a simple concept. Simple works."

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