Parole Release Decisions: Impact of Positive and Negative Victim and Nonvictim Input on a Representative Sample of Parole-Eligible Inmates

By Caplan, Joel M. | Violence and Victims, March 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Parole Release Decisions: Impact of Positive and Negative Victim and Nonvictim Input on a Representative Sample of Parole-Eligible Inmates


Caplan, Joel M., Violence and Victims


This study analyzed administrative data from the New Jersey State Parole Board to determine the extent to which victim and nonvictim input impacted parole release decisions. Positive and negative input, in both verbal and written forms, was studied for a representative sample of 820 parole-eligible adult inmates. Victim input was not found to be a significant predictor of parole release; measures of institutional behavior, crime severity, and criminal history were significant. Though insignificant, verbal input had a greater effect than written input. Results suggest that the impact of victim input is not generalizable across different types of offenders or across different paroling jurisdictions. It can no longer be assumed that victim rights laws and public participation at parole guarantee victim-desired outcomes.

Keywords : public; participation; decision-making; statements; violent; nonviolent; offender

The public criminal prosecution model, with its often routine marginalization of the crime victim, continued until the 1970s when a victim rights movement emerged (Gottschalk, 2006; Tobolowsky, 1999). The movement emphasized making the crime victim an integral part of criminal prosecutions and sought to reestablish a greater role for crime victims in the criminal justice system (Office for Victims of Crime, 1998; Tobolowsky, 1999). The Office for Victims of Crime reported in 1998 that few movements in the history of the United States have achieved such success in uniting the kind of legislative response that the victim rights movement has fostered since its inception. Of particular interest here are legislatively mandated opportunities for victims and other people to be notified of pending parole hearings and to provide input to parole board members when deciding parole release.

Increased attention and emotional support given to crime victims has been a much needed improvement to the criminal justice system. However, many states require their parole boards to consider victim input without explicitly directing board members on how to objectively consider the information provided by the input when making release decisions (Bernat, Parsonage, & Helfgott, 1994). As a result, victim input may cater to the emotions of parole board members in an effort to affect parole release outcomes. Revenge and vengeance have been deeply ingrained in America's social fabric throughout history, though they are broadly denied in contemporary society at large (Foucault, 1977/ 1995; Sievers & Mersky, 2006; Valier, 2004). "Despite that denial," explained Sievers and Mersky (2006), "the underlying feelings and the desire to persecute remained real. Thus revenge often is reached unconsciously by [other means]" (p. 241). If input is used to influence parole on vengeful or punitive grounds, it may be a mechanism for increasing the already high rate of incarceration in the United States. The end result could be greater public risk as certain inmates "max out" their sentences and are released from prison without state supervision and guidance on parole (Solomon, Kachnowski, & Bhati, 2005).

Victims might point out that offenders' suffering is less important than any potential increase in well-being for crime victims and their families; and, victims of crime may feel satisfaction as a consequence of offenders' longer time in prison. But there is always a risk of unfulfilled expectations if victims provide input and then expect parole release decisions to have a certain outcome (Davis & Smith, 1994; Erez, Roeger, & Morgan, 1997; Kaptein, 2004; Malsch, 2004). If victim input is not influential because it is undervalued or overlooked by parole board members, then several victim advocacy resources are wasted and potentially useful information concerning an inmate's risk to the public upon release is ignored. A lot of time, money, and political capital are spent promoting victims' rights and ensuring that victims are part of criminal justice processes (Gottschalk, 2006), and victims are led to believe that their input matters (Malsch, 2004).

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Parole Release Decisions: Impact of Positive and Negative Victim and Nonvictim Input on a Representative Sample of Parole-Eligible Inmates
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