Parole In America'S Criminal System
A look into America's Criminal Justice system and how parole is not working, and what needs to be done to fix the problems with recidivity.
One of today's most hotly debated topics in the criminal justice field is whether or not individual states should abandon the parole system. Many people feel it is time to do away with parole, while others are fighting for its survival. As with any controversial change, there are pros and cons to both sides of the argument, all of which are very convincing. The basic arguments for and against the abolition of the parole system at the state level can be easily defined.
One of the strongest arguments against the destruction of the parole system is the overpopulation problem in most prisons. Since the early 1980's, the population of inmates in correctional institutions has grown astronomically. Between 1986 and 1991, prisons have seen a 41% increase in the population of violent crime offenders. For drug related offenses, the number has increased three-fold. So it would make sense to argue that eliminating parole would make this problem even worse, right? Well, not exactly. Inmate populations are so extreme, that prisoners are sitting on waiting lists. When an inmate is released from prison, the vacant spot is filled instantaneously. In this respect, the parole system is actually doing nothing to fix the overpopulation problem, and increasing operating costs. This was illustrated when between 1976 and 1984, 10 states passed new laws that included the abolition of parole. Only one state, Indiana, had an increase in inmate population. In fact, Minnesota and Washington State both had major reductions in their prisoner populations. The remaining 7 states showed no changes in their inmate population.
The next step in evaluating parole might be to inquire into how the system affects the inmates. Just what effect does parole have on the success of released inmates? Unfortunately, most studies show that it is negative impact. A Bureau of Prisoners (BOP) follow-up investigation of parolees by Miles D. Harer, Ph.D. displayed some very beleaguering statistics. Of the 1,205 person parolee test group Harer followed in the first half of 1987, over 40% of the former inmates had been re-arrested or had their parole revoked. In another study performed in 1989, the National Institute of Justice found that 62% of 108,580 individuals released from prison in 11 different states during 1983 had been re-arrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within a 3-year period. 47% were convicted of a new crime, and 41% were re-incarcerated. A staggering 55% of these parolees were out of work for more than half the year. What is particularly disturbing is that legislation passed in recent years has not helped much. The Tennessee Sentencing Commission (TSI) and the Statistical Analysis Center of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation performed a study of their parolee population in 1994. The target group consisted of 3,793 people. Of those released during the sample period, around 53% were re-arrested in a 2-year period, with a 39% re-incarceration rate.
Another defense of the parole has to do with determining the "bad apples" and focusing special attention on them. Let's identify these "bad apples". 62% of violent offenders recidivate after release according to a 1989 poll by The Bureau of Justice Statistics. As of December 1998, The Bureau of Prisons ranks drug offenses as the most common transgression with 110,793 prisoners under its jurisdiction. Of these 58,224, 58.6% were drug related. Drug abusers make up the majority of inmates, and the majority of whose parole is rescinded. In one study, the urine of 237 parolee subjects was monitored for a one-year period. 119 of the subjects had failed their urine tests, and 27% had already been re-incarcerated, only after the first year. A study by Vaillant started in 1973 followed similar subjects for a 20-year period and found 91% of those released went back to drug use in less than 1 year. In 1981, a study performed by Desmond found drug use in 66% of parolees after only 1 week of freedom, and 94% after 1 year. These offenders play a huge role in the burdening of the prison system. Drug offenders accounted for a 44% increase in prison population between 1986 and 1991.
Judging by these statistics, drug abusers, both violent and non-violent, are most at risk to relapse. The reason for this is quite simple. Most of these inmates released on parole never complete any form of rehabilitation program. Proponents of the parole system argue that rehabilitation programs and their success rates make parole a realistic solution. Indeed, there are many great programs that have been started in recent years. For example, the BOP's drug abuse treatment program (DAP), which was started in 1986, has met with astounding results. Parolees who successfully completed this program faced a mere 3.3% chance of being re-arrested in the first 6 months after release, and a much lower 20% relapse into drug use. These people faced a 73% lower chance of being re-arrested compared to those who did not complete this program. In theory this sounds like the solution to everyone's problems. However, what the many people seem to overlook is the fact that very few parolees actually graduate from any such program. At the time of this 6 month follow-up study, only 1,524 successfully completed the DAP program. The remaining 56,700 imprisoned due to drug related crimes received no such treatment. Studies of all general drug treatment in prisons find only 10% of inmates who need these services actually get them.
The other big question is, just how many taxpayer dollars are used to keep each inmate in prison? Isn't parole more economically sound? It costs from $12,000 a year for federal inmates to remain in prison, to as much as $58,000 a year in New York City. But, how much does it cost the public to deal with parolees who commit new crimes after release? There haven't really been definitive studies performed that compare this cost to that of the monetary value of damage caused by the criminals. This is mainly because of the difficulty to put a price tag on things such as pain and suffering of victims. However, it is widely suspected that the incarceration costs are actually a bargain compared to the costs dealing with the crimes. When it comes to drug related crimes, the cost savings of keeping a criminal incarcerated are quite obvious. A study performed by RAND concluded that substance abuse treatment is up to seven times more cost-effective in reducing some types of drug use than the use of domestic law enforcement. This has also been proven in actual real-word situations. In 1997, The California Department of Corrections (CDC) implemented a new drug treatment program. They have found that for a 200 bed facility such as the Corcroan II saves the CDC 7.5 nearly million dollars over 7 years by reducing abusers' returns to custody. By increasing the program to 3,000 beds, the program would save the state nearly 30 million dollars over the 7 year period. The amount saved is much more than the cost of the program itself.
There is hope that in the future, parole may once more become a viable option when the treatment programs become widely available. Rehabilitation and treatment programs that are preparing inmates for re-entry into society are very successful. However, while such treatment is only dispersed to 10% of those who need it, it's not in the best interest to society to allow these criminals to be released early. More than 2 out of 3 will go right back to a life of crime. Keeping these inmates in prison for the full length of their terms does not increase costs when compared to the costs of releasing them on an unsuspecting public. Also, the prison populations are not adversely effected. Until the remaining 90% of those who need treatment can receive it, it is better for both the public and the inmate for the sentence to be completed as was intended.
Perhaps in the future parole might become an option as we develop the tools to prepare inmates for early re-entry into society. Until then it is safer for the communities and better for the inmates themselves to finish their sentences.