Parole is a process that allows a prisoner to be released from prison to experience increased freedom, while remaining under limited supervision. While on parole, the parolee is expected to adhere to specific conditions set forth by the parole board (for example, asking permission before leaving the state). Parole supervision requires periodic meetings with an officer and permits reincarceration of the parolee if the parolee violates the conditions of parole. Social scientists have studied the decision-making processes of parole boards, the effectiveness of parole supervision, and public opinion about parole.
The structure of the parole system, including decision-making criteria, varies considerably among states. Two main forms of parole are (1) mandatory parole and (2) discretionary parole. In some states, parole boards grant parole automatically after the prisoner has served a set amount of time. In other states, parole decisions are discretionary decisions made by a parole board. Some parole boards with limited discretion make decisions using standard guidelines based on factors such as offense seriousness and risk of parole violation.
When given discretion, parole boards are responsible for making many decisions, including whether or not a prisoner should be paroled, when they should parole a prisoner, what parole conditions will be required, and whether a return to prison is necessary after a parole violation. Parole boards may deny parole to prisoners if the board suspects that the prisoner will reoffend or fail to adhere to the parole conditions. The parole board must choose among a wide variety of postrelease alternatives that differ in their level of supervision for those prisoners that they have paroled. Boards may delay parole if necessary treatment services are not yet available in the community. Administrative demands, such as a dearth of prison beds, can influence parole decisions. Many states have abolished or limited discretionary parole in favor of mandatory parole. Critics of discretionary parole suggest that the boards should standardize decisions to eliminate bias in decision making.
Factors that influence discretionary parole decisions include the number of felonies committed, the original length of the sentence, the prisoner’s attitude toward the victim, institutional adjustment (for example, participation in prison programs), the warden’s recommendations, input from the victim or victim’s family, and the presumed risk of recidivism (this latter factor is usually the most influential). Researchers have developed statistical equations to predict probability of recidivism based on indicators such as prison behavior, age, history of criminal acts, and type of crime committed. Psychologists may participate in parole hearings by administering and reporting results of psychological tests that are designed to assess risk. However, research suggests that parole boards are unlikely to ask psychologists to participate unless the prisoner has a history of mental illness or psychological disorder. Individuals who are serving sentences for violent offenses, are believed to be at high risk of violating parole, were violent during their imprisonment, have a prior record, or have had a history of psychiatric hospitalization tend to serve more time before being granted parole than do prisoners without that history.
Parole board members commonly believe that parole functions include protecting society and rehabilitating offenders, and that parole is not punishment. Board members indicate that the system is overloaded and lacks public and governmental support. They also perceive a need for better public understanding and more treatment-based programs.
There is no clear way to evaluate the decisions of parole boards. One popular view is that any parolee who commits another crime after release is a failure of the system. Evaluation, however, is not that simple. Because legislative, judicial, and administrative decisions often affect parole board decisions, critics feel that it is inappropriate to place all of the responsibility of parole decision outcomes on the parole board. In addition, there is not a straightforward dichotomy between success and failure. For one prisoner, a return to prison based on a minor or technical parole violation could be viewed as a success because his reincarceration prevented other major crimes. Similarly, the decision to deny another prisoner parole may be viewed as a success because that decision denies the prisoner the opportunity to commit another crime. However, such a decision could be erroneous because the prisoner might be, in fact, suitable for parole. Despite the controversy, recidivism remains the popular unit of measuring the success of parole decisions.
Parole serves a variety of purposes including incapacitation, rehabilitation, deterrence, and restitution. The parole officer’s supervision primarily achieves these goals. Officers typically adopt one of two supervision styles: (1) casework or (2) surveillance. A casework supervision style focuses on providing supportive interventions designed to rehabilitate the offender, while a surveillance style focuses on monitoring the offender in order to catch any parole violations.
Parole supervision tends to slightly reduce or delay recidivism, though once the supervisory period ends recidivism rates for supervised parolees becomes comparable to an unsupervised group. Research has indicated that factors for parole failure include poor employment records, poor social support, and drug dependency. Those whom the boards parole into a treatment facility, such as a drug treatment facility, are less likely to reoffend than those whom the boards parole without any sort of treatment intervention.
Public opinion toward parole is unclear. Some research suggests that the public disapproves of parole because it is too lenient and does not protect society. Other research suggests that the public endorses parole as a solution to prison overcrowding, especially for nonviolent offenders.
Discretion in Legal Decision Making; Prediction Studies; Prisons and Jails, Criminology of; Prisons and Jails, Economics of; Punishment, Psychology of; Punishment and Sentencing Alternatives; Rehabilitation and Treatment; Victim’s Rights
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