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Parole boards are worth saving.

Can parole boards regain their place in the criminal justice system and are they worth saving? Sixteen states have abolished their boards of parole, leaving the boards with discretion over a diminishing group of inmates who were sentenced before release on discretionary parole was abolished. Many of the parole boards that remain have seen their authority reduced by very restrictive legislation. Reentry and community transition are the new terms being used instead of parole release. States are assigning reentry staff to develop and implement transition programs. In many of these states, the traditional role of parole boards is being overlooked or ignored. Parole boards can survive and are worth saving. However there are issues that need to be addressed.

Measurable Performance Standards

A merit-based, nonbiased selection of parole board members should be the standard. In addition, paroling authorities must recognize the need to be accountable to the public. One must have measurable standards by which they can judge the performance of parole boards. Last year, the Association of Paroling Authorities, International (APAI) adopted the following standards:

* The parole board shall develop a comprehensive policy and procedure manual available for public review.

* The parole board shall have a validated assessment instrument that is used in its decision-making process.

* A parole board shall have written guidelines that specify criteria for making release decisions.

* A parole board shall have a specific sex offender risk instrument that is used in decision-making.

* A parole board shall develop a code of ethics that each member shall sign as part of his or her appointment.

* A parole board shall have a policy in place that assures the rights of the victim to be heard and notified as part of the parole process.

* A parole board member shall have an initial orientation, which should include the Resource Kit for New Parole Members, followed by a minimum of 16 hours of in-service training each year.

Research

There is a lack of definitive, substantive research on the performance of paroling authorities. There is talk about "evidence-based practices," and most agree that movement should be made in this direction. However, development of evidence-based practices is difficult, if not impossible, because of the lack of evidence available. Repeatedly, state legislative bodies have enacted laws affecting the authority of parole boards--very few of which have been based upon or supported by substantive research. The impact of these statutes has been dramatic, costing billions, with taxpayers bearing the cost. One wonders, for example, who established the "85 percent" rule. Did those promoting the 85 percent time served legislation have substantive evidence that this standard would be effective in reducing recidivism? Laws such as the 85 percent statute have placed a priority on filling prison beds and have eliminated programs that could have an impact on the behavior of the offender once released. Would a requirement of 75 percent or 65 percent sentence served work just as well? There are those that present a convincing argument, supported by research, that the length of time spent in prison has nothing to do with how well an individual will perform once released. (1) It would be more appropriate that the decision to release should remain with a parole board, where a qualified body could review the facts and circumstances.

The APAI Parole Board Survey 2005 found 12 states that discretionarily paroled more than 50 percent and three states that paroled less than 12 percent of those released during 2005. (2) Looking at the releases in the 21 states reviewed in this survey, 48 percent were released discretionarily by paroling authorities; 21 percent were released by other means to supervision; and 31 percent were released without supervision. It would seem these 21 states present an opportunity to do some comparisons as to the type of release and impact on crime. Efforts should be undertaken to determine what research projects would best provide the paroling authorities with necessary information (i.e., evidence) to develop the evidence-based practices so much in demand.

Current Opinions

Peggy Burke, senior associate at the Center for Effective Public Policy, stated in Abolishing Parole: Why the Emperor Has No Clothes that "new information suggests that the parole abolition solution merits another look." (3) In response to the abolition of parole boards in the 1980s and 1990s, Burke wrote in this 1995 publication, "Are we so callous and jaded to think we can pass off this slight of hand to the American people in yet another state? Will no one admit that the emperor has no clothes?" This publication had a wide distribution and was sent, along with a videotape of an informative press conference, to every governor, legislative corrections committee chair and most agency heads in criminal justice. It is impossible to determine the impact of the publication; however, even though legislation has limited the authority of many parole boards, no parole boards have been abolished outright since 1996.

Joan Petersilia, in her book When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry recommends that "we should reinstitute discretionary parole release in the 16 states that have abolished it. Eliminating discretionary release reduces the incentive for inmates to try to rehabilitate themselves while incarcerated." She added, "Eliminating discretionary release works against our attempts at rehabilitation." (4) A 2005 publication, funded by the Justice, Equality, Human Dignity and Tolerance (JEHT) foundation, Successful Transition and Reentry for Safer Communities: A Call to Action for Parole states, "Given this readiness for change, tools in place and efforts already under way what more will it take to equip parole to be a full and effective partner in reentry efforts." (5) The publication concludes by outlining and issuing a call for action by the stakeholders interested in public safety.

Conclusion

There is no easy fix. Recognition of the roles of the various entities and bodies in criminal justice is essential. Law enforcement officers are charged with the task of arrest. Prosecuting attorneys are advocates of the state in prosecuting cases. The judge and jury determine guilt or innocence and penalties. Corrections departments maintain the inmates in a secure environment and provide for care, housing and health of the inmates while in the state's custody. Likewise, the paroling authority's role is to "collaborate with correctional institutions, parole supervision agencies, and community resources to create incentives for the offender to change, encouraging participation in appropriate programs, and setting conditions that facilitate successful reentry." (6) The transitioning of inmates into the community needs, indeed requires, the independent decision-making and oversight that qualified and professional paroling authorities can provide.

Taking a leadership role in calling for a professional selection process in the appointment of parole members would be a start. Adopting measurable performance standards adds credibility and reassures the public that informed, educated decisions are being made. Instituting evidence-based practices, based upon good and valid research, is essential. If paroling authorities could consider the aforementioned ideas, it would go a long way in bringing them back to the table and making them a major player in reentry.

ENDNOTES

(1) Austin, Jim. 1986. Using early release to relieve prison crowding: A dilemma in public policy. Crime & Delinquency, 32(4):404-502.

(2) Association of Paroling Authorities, International. 2005. Parole board survey 2005. California, Mo.: Association of Paroling Authorities, International.

(3) Burke, Peggy. 1995. Abolishing parole: Why the emperor has no clothes. Lexington, Ky.: American Probation and Parole Association; California, Mo.: Association of Paroling Authorities, International.

(4) Petersilia, Joan. 2003. When prisoners come home: Parole and prisoner reentry. New York: Oxford University Press.

(5) Burke, Peggy and Michael Tonry. 2005. Successful transition and reentry for safer communities: A call to action for parole. Silver Spring, Md.: Center for Effective Public Policy.

(6) Peggy Burke and Michael Tonry. 2005.

Gail Hughes has 55 years of experience in corrections and lives and works in California, Mo. He was executive secretary for the Association of Paroling Authorities, International from 1994 to 2006. In addition, he worked with the Missouri Department of Corrections for 42 years, the last eight of which he served as deputy director.
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Title Annotation:Probation and Parole Forum
Author:Hughes, Gail
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2007
Words:1334
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