Parole Boards Are Worth Saving

Article excerpt

Can parole boards regain their place in the criminal justice system and are they worth saving? Sixteen states have abolished their boards of parole, leaving the boards with discretion over a diminishing group of inmates who were sentenced before release on discretionary parole was abolished. Many of the parole boards that remain have seen their authority reduced by very restrictive legislation. Reentry and community transition are the new terms being used instead of parole release. States are assigning reentry staff to develop and implement transition programs. In many of these states, the traditional role of parole boards is being overlooked or ignored. Parole boards can survive and are worth saving. However there are issues that need to be addressed.

Measurable Performance Standards

A merit-based, nonbiased selection of parole board members should be the standard. In addition, paroling authorities must recognize the need to be accountable to the public. One must have measurable standards by which they can judge the performance of parole boards. Last year, the Association of Paroling Authorities, International (APAI) adopted the following standards:

* The parole board shall develop a comprehensive policy and procedure manual available for public review.

* The parole board shall have a validated assessment instrument that is used in its decision-making process.

* A parole board shall have written guidelines that specify criteria for making release decisions.

* A parole board shall have a specific sex offender risk instrument that is used in decision-making.

* A parole board shall develop a code of ethics that each member shall sign as part of his or her appointment.

* A parole board shall have a policy in place that assures the rights of the victim to be heard and notified as part of the parole process.

* A parole board member shall have an initial orientation, which should include the Resource Kit for New Parole Members, followed by a minimum of 16 hours of in-service training each year.

Research

There is a lack of definitive, substantive research on the performance of paroling authorities. There is talk about "evidence-based practices," and most agree that movement should be made in this direction. However, development of evidence-based practices is difficult, if not impossible, because of the lack of evidence available. Repeatedly, state legislative bodies have enacted laws affecting the authority of parole boards--very few of which have been based upon or supported by substantive research. The impact of these statutes has been dramatic, costing billions, with taxpayers bearing the cost. One wonders, for example, who established the "85 percent" rule. Did those promoting the 85 percent time served legislation have substantive evidence that this standard would be effective in reducing recidivism? Laws such as the 85 percent statute have placed a priority on filling prison beds and have eliminated programs that could have an impact on the behavior of the offender once released. Would a requirement of 75 percent or 65 percent sentence served work just as well? There are those that present a convincing argument, supported by research, that the length of time spent in prison has nothing to do with how well an individual will perform once released. (1) It would be more appropriate that the decision to release should remain with a parole board, where a qualified body could review the facts and circumstances.

The APAI Parole Board Survey 2005 found 12 states that discretionarily paroled more than 50 percent and three states that paroled less than 12 percent of those released during 2005. (2) Looking at the releases in the 21 states reviewed in this survey, 48 percent were released discretionarily by paroling authorities; 21 percent were released by other means to supervision; and 31 percent were released without supervision. …