The Criminal Justice System
The Criminal Justice System, its whole purpose is to identify and capture unlawful citizens and inflict a form of punishment. However, some convicts are given a second chance at life in the outside world in the form of parole. Based on a consensus done at the end of 2016, about 4,537,100 adults were on parole, that is about 1 in 55 adults in the United States (Kaeble 2018). If done with a more recent consensus of the United States, that number jumps up to almost 6 million. Yet, a large amount of prisoners are still denied parole and have to go through their entire sentence, even if they show low risk of re-entry.
With examination of the parole system using a fine-toothed comb, one can see that there are many flaws with the system that is causing low-risk convicts to suffer. But can sometimes ends up releasing a high-risk convict back into society.
Now starting with the basics, what is parole and how did it come to be? Well by definition, parole is “the release of a prisoner temporarily or permanently before the completion of a sentence, on the promise of good behavior.”. It all started in New York, the first state to adopt a comprehensive system of parole in the year 1907. By the year 1942, all the states and the federal government have adopted parole systems. Prisoners were being released at a steady rate and the rate of early releases reached a high in 1977, with 77 percent of convicts being released. This trend was drawing attention, especially since a number of high-profiled crimes were being committed by felons on parole.
Due to this, the people of the country were starting to doubt the effectiveness of the parole system. Also with indeterminate sentencing, a prison sentence that consists of a range of years, too much authority was given to the judicial and executive branch and shortchanged the legislative branch. So state legislatures began passing determinate sentencing laws, which established fixed, mandatory sentencing for crimes. Many states began to reduce the power of parole boards and established a criteria, for early releases.
Soon Congress wasn’t very fond of the federal parole system. The Democratic party was concerned about the racial bias in parole board decisions and the Republican party felt that too many prisoners were being released. So with the passing of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, the federal parole system was removed. It was replaced with point system that we currently use today, where prisoners who meet certain requirements can reduce their sentences by up to 54 days a year. So that’s how the current parole system into fruition, but how does it work.
The parole system starts after a convict have reached the time requirement for the state they are in, since all states have different systems, some will have longer time requirements. So the time requirement is met, next the convict have to request parole. The board considers and review all the facts and documents on the convict, this includes a risk assessment to be sure that the convict isn’t likely to commit another crime after release.
During the parole hearing, one member of the parole board will interview the convict, which mainly includes question about criminal, social and substance abuse history, previous adjustment on parole or probation, conduct in prison, programming, parole plans, and other factors. After the interview, the decision is normally made by a three member panel of the parole board in the form of majority vote.
If parole is granted, then the convict is released back to the community under the supervision of a parole officer. However, if parole is denied, the convict is sent back to jail or prison and they must wait for their next chance to go before the board. It seems that the system isn’t faulty, but just given it a closer, you could see the flaws.
The first issue is that sometimes the decision of the parole board was made on faulty documentation. In a test sample of 35 prisoner hearings in 2009, the parole board had came across between one and four factual errors in each psychological evaluation assessment.(Garcia 2010) Even to the point where they mixed up a prisoner with someone else. The psychological evaluation assessment is one of the most important factors that determine whether a convict is released and to know that they aren’t accurate if baffling. Now prisoners are usually interviewed by the board, but what if the parole board never meets the prisoner at all.
That’s the next issue. Sometimes instead of the convict going before the board, they never meet, and the board makes their decision solely the review of documents, that may be flawed. But it might be better to hear is it from the horse's mouth so to speak. In the interview of former Ohio parole board member, Shirley Smith, she mention a couple of issues in parole hearings that she noticed.
Her first claim was that the parole members were distracted regularly. She states that -“board members conduct five to 10 hearings in a day via videoconference, giving themselves no time for lunch and little time to prepare for an individual’s case. A parolee, who often has been waiting years for a hearing, sees a board that is often eating during a hearing not paying attention because they are reviewing documents from an upcoming case”(Pelzer 2019) If the board is distracted with other activities and not focusing on the current task at hand, the decision they make might not be the best decision. Shirley even stated that she participated in this too.
Her next claim was parole member often wouldn’t be at the hearing, yet still vote. Stating that “when an inmate comes before the Parole Board, often only a fraction of board members are there to hear their argument for parole”(Pelzer 2019), even though all members weren’t present, they would still vote. Dubbing them “Ghost votes”(Pelzer 2019), Shirley makes a good point, “You can’t make an assessment of a person if you’re not there”(Pelzer 2019).
Shirley also claimed that “Parole Board members are harsher against minorities”(Pelzer 2019). She proceeds to mention a time when a “spanish-speaking inmate with little understanding of english”(Pelzer 2019). She proposed that they just rescheduled his hearing so they could have an interpreter present. However another member of the board by the name Mark Houk was stated to say “Well, why should we do that?” she quoted Houk as saying. That’s costing the state money. I can just give him five years based on what he’s in for.”(Pelzer 2019). One of the other members of the Parole Board was just willing to deny a man parole because he believe that it would just be easier to send him back instead of rescheduling so they could get a translator.
The spokesperson of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction didn’t address any of the claims made by Shirley Smith during the interview. And they were unable to question Mark Houk on the claim against him. So there is a list of issues in the parole system, but what can be done to fix it.
Fortunately race isn’t too much of an issue other that that. In fact, the gap between white parole releases and black parole releases is slowly getting smaller.
One way to fix these problems is expanding on problem-solving courts. Also known as specialized courts, these courts work with the arrestee who has needs that can’t be met in a traditional court. With problem-solving courts working with arrestees closely, the courts come up with less adversarial solutions then traditional courts, benefiting the offender and the community. Problem-solving courts would also be more efficient. Specialized judges and lawyer can focus on their specialties which would make court trials run more smoothly.
They only issues with specialized courts is that they take money and resources from general courts which can put more stress on them as they won’t be able to handle cases at an efficient workflow. Also specialized courts are at a higher risk of being influenced by special interest groups. Many specialized will separate defendants into tiers based on the location of the court.
Next solution is to strengthen the community-based programs. Making these programs more effective and make more of these programs will help make prisoners more self-sufficient in the outside world and less-likely to re-offend.
Making the parole decision be based more on the risk assessment would also help improve the parole system as well. These decisions should be made based on the likelihood of the convict re-offending not on their previous criminal history. Ohio has been using a standard set of risk assessment tools to decide whether or not a convict is likely to reoffend and it is an accurate system. Many problems can be solved with these issues, however they would cost money for these fixes to be put in place. So it may be awhile before they are implemented.
People believe that prison is on a place of punishment. A place similar to time-out, where criminals are left to think about what they have done and be haunted with their thoughts. This wouldn’t help convicts, if anything it would make it worse. Instead of seeing it as a place of punishment, prison should be seen as a place of reform. A facility where prisoners go in as convicts and come out as changed people. Where convicts have an equal chance of having an early release where they can live out the rest of their sentence outside. Even though people feel it’s what they deserve, what they really deserve is to be help so they don’t have to commit crimes.
They should have to worry about going up to parole and not being heard and denied something they worked hard. They want to try to change. That’s why they made an effort to get to the parole hearing, meeting the eligibility requirements, They want to be better. But some won’t be able to show they can with our current system. To give convicts a place of reform.