Influencing Parole Board Decisions

Influencing Parole Board Decisions

Influencing Parole Board Decisions
Influencing Parole Board Decisions

Statistically, few victims ever deal with members of parole boards because only small percentages of offenders are caught, convicted, and sent away to prison for years. However, parole hearings have received a great deal of attention from the victims’ rights movement because they determine the fates of inmates who have inflicted serious harm.

By definition, parole means an early release for felons before the maximum or upper limits of the judges’ sentences have been served. Prisoners become eligible for parole after serving a specified proportion of their sentences, but parole is not automatic. After hearings, parole boards turn down most convicts, keeping them incarcerated for many more years. (However, even without parole, early release is still possible because most correctional institutions subtract time off for good behavior.)

The board grants conditional liberty to con- victs who have earned the privilege of parole. They may return to their communities but must abide by restrictions on their conduct. Parolees who violate the rules can be returned to prison to finish up the remainder of their unexpired full sentences at the discretion of administrative judges after revocation hearings.

Victims with a punitive outlook will want parole boards to vote to keep convicts behind bars for their entire sentences. Victims seeking reim- bursement will want boards to grant parole to con- victs but impose strict restitution obligations on them. Victims concerned about offender rehabilita- tion will want boards to impose treatment obliga- tions as a condition of parole.

Because many parolees commit additional crimes after serving time, boards granting early release have come under intense scrutiny and even criticism. Although the origins of parole date back to the mid-1800s, convicts are finding it much more difficult to earn early release these days. Tra- ditionally, three rationales justify setting up boards


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to grant the privilege of a shortened sentence to selected prisoners. The first is that ex-convicts can make smoother transitions from a tightly controlled prison regimen to civilian life with the guidance of parole officers. Second, corrections officers can control the behavior of inmates more effectively if a possibility of early release looms as a reward for continuous good behavior. The third justification is that parole enables correctional authorities to better manage the flow of prisoners into and out of insti- tutions, ensuring that sufficient cell space is available for new arrivals.

Prisoners’ rights groups have rejected the notion that parole is a form of benevolence that serves as an incentive for rehabilitation. They have criticized the practice as a way of extending the length of time ex-convicts are under governmental control; as a device to prolong punishment; and as a source of anxiety and uncertainty. These groups have called for the abolition of the practice of parole and have suggested determinate or fixed sen- tences of shorter duration as a replacement for indefinite sentences with widely varying minimums and maximums (Shelden, 1982).

Crime control organizations also have demanded an end to the parole system but for dif- ferent reasons. They perceive parole boards as grant- ing undeserved breaks and unwarranted leniency because dangerous criminals are let out prematurely. They want parole ended and replaced with definite sentences of longer duration (President’s Task Force, 1982). Victims, too, may bitterly resent the practice of parole if it reduces sentences of incarceration that they originally considered too short. If parolees harass victims or fail to pay them restitution in a timely manner, then parole board decisions will be resented for these additional reasons (see Herdt, 2013).

As a result of the widespread dissatisfaction with parole, the federal prison system and a number of state systems have phased it out. In other juris- dictions, parole is granted less often. The reliance on parole reached its peak in 1977, when as many as 72 percent of prisoners returning to society were granted conditional liberty with community super- vision. The proportion of inmates achieving discre- tionary early release had dropped to 35 percent in

2006 (Glaze and Bonczar, 2007). Over 850,000 for- merly incarcerated adults were out on parole in 2013 (Herberman and Bonczar, 2014), although some of them, such as drug dealers, had not been sentenced for interpersonal violence. However, since trends in the data reveal that more than one-third of prisoners still do not serve their maxi- mum terms, and hundreds of thousands of convicts were under the supervision of parole officers, it is clear that victims retain an interest in exercising their rights before parole boards.

Although procedures to standardize and rationalize parole board decision making have been implemented, measures also have been adopted to open up the process by providing notice to and soliciting input from groups that were formerly excluded. In 43 states, legislation expressly grants victims (and often law enforce- ment officers, prosecutors, and judges) the right to attend parole hearings (usually held inside pris- ons in remote locations) and to personally inform board members of their views. Alternatively, they can submit written or videotaped impact state- ments. Board members can serve victims by invit- ing them to participate in decision-making processes, by warning them in advance that the persons they helped send to prison are being let go, and by ordering the convicts to pay restitution as a condition of release. In some states, restitution is a mandatory requirement for parolees unless the board excuses them from it (National Victim Center, 1990; and Parker, 2009). Understandably, the next of kin of murder victims often argue, “don’t release the convict on parole,” as this case demonstrates:

An off-duty police sergeant spots an armed robbery- in-progress at an ATM. The robber, a drug addict who has previously served time for two manslaugh- ters, fires at the policeman and kills him; the officer’s bullet is deflected by the robber’s zipper, and he escapes. An innocent man confesses to the crime. When the actual killer eventually is captured, prose- cutors are compelled to negotiate a plea of 15 years to life. After the 15 years are up, the slain officer’s father has to attend parole board meetings every two

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years. The father, a retired DEA agent who carried out 3,000 arrests without once firing his service revolver, tells the parole board in a written statement, “Anyone who sets this creature free, from this day on, know that innocent blood is on your hands. This is no longer about vengeance. Nothing I say can bring my son back.” When the board turns down the convict’s application for parole for the third time, the father declares, “There’s no celebration. It is what it is.” (McShane, 2011a; 2011b)

As with sentencing, the potential impact of victim input on decision making about parole is limited. The boards receive statements not only from victims, but also from prosecutors, judges, and other concerned parties. They interview the inmates and review their criminal records and the prison files summarizing their behavior behind bars. Most of the time, the decisions arrived at by boards are not determined by the wishes of victims but rather by intense political pressures to keep convicts confined longer or by pragmatic administrative considerations to let some out ahead of schedule to make room for new arrivals.

Victimologists have carried out occasional stud- ies to see how the reforms are actually working. In Texas, only about 20 percent of eligible people filed victim impact statements (Schmidt, 2006). Similarly, most failed to appear and speak out at sentencing hearings (Forer, 1980). Those who did exercise their in-person allocution rights exerted very little influence, especially when convicts faced determinate (fixed) sentences (Villmoare and Neto, 1987; Walsh, 1992). A survey of New Yorkers turned up no clear evidence that those who filed victim impact statements experienced a greater sense of involvement or were more satisfied with the city’s justice system and the disposition in their cases (Davis and Smith, 1994).

However, when victims submitted impact state- ments to Pennsylvania parole boards, inmates were less likely to be granted early release (Parsonage, Bernat, and Helfgott, 1994). And when California prosecutors introduced victim impact statements during the penalty phase in capital murder trials, the additional evidence raised the likelihood that the jury

would impose execution rather than sentence the killer to life in prison without the possibility of parole (Aguirre et al., 1999). According to a federally spon- sored survey of departments of corrections in various states, 98 percent reported that they were notifying victims of parole dates and release dates (Gagliardi, 2005).

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