Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Short-Term Effects of Sanctioning Reform on Parole Officers' Revocation Decisions

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Short-Term Effects of Sanctioning Reform on Parole Officers' Revocation Decisions

Article excerpt

Parole officials have traditionally been afforded considerable discretion when making sanctioning decisions to be able to tailor sanctions according to substantively rational concerns such as individuals' unique needs and situations. However, the application of substantive rationality in sanctioning can also generate unwanted disparities because sanctioning decisions may be based on extralegal factors that parole officials consider relevant. Concerns regarding disparate treatment of offender groups have prompted a number of states to consider adopting administrative violation response policies that emphasize formal rationality and uniformity by restricting parole officers' discretion and structuring sanctioning decisions according to legally relevant criteria. By emphasizing formal rationality in sanctioning, structured sanction policies present a dilemma for parole officers-uniformity versus individualized treatment. In 2005, the state of Ohio implemented an administrative violation response policy designed to reduce parole officers' reliance on revocation hearings and promote uniformity in sanctioning decisions. This study involved an examination of whether Ohio's shift to structured sanctioning coincided with differences in legal and extralegal effects on parole officers' decisions to pursue revocation hearings. Analyses of data collected before and after the implementation of the policy revealed a reduction in the number of revocation hearings officers pursued. Only modest increases in uniformity were observed, however, because there was little disparity resulting from officers' hearing decisions before the policy was put in place. These findings are discussed within perspectives on justice system actors' decision making.

In most states, parole supervision was founded on progressive ideals regarding individualized punishment, case management, and rehabilitation; and historically, parole officials have been afforded considerable discretion to individualize offender treatment according to substantively rational concerns such as offenders' unique needs, situations, and attributes (Petersilia 2003; Rothman 1980; Simon 1993). Similar to other areas of the justice system, however, the discretionary decision making of parole officials has been criticized because of its potential to produce unwanted disparities in the treatment of offender groups (see, e.g., Burke 1997; Simon 1993; Walker 1993). Concerns regarding parole officials' misuse of discretion have, among other things, prompted a number of states to consider parole reform (Committee on Community Supervision and Desistance From Crime 2008; Solomon et al. 2005; Travis & Lawrence 2002; Travis & Petersilia 2001; Travis & Visher 2005). Administrative graduated sanctioning models have emerged as a promising strategy that may reduce disparate treatment and promote a uniform response to offender noncompliance (Burke 1997; Taxman et al. 1999).

Graduated or progressive sanctions are structured, incremental responses to noncompliant behavior by offenders under supervision (Taxman et al. 1999). When included in an administrative violation response policy, sanctioning is structured in a manner consistent with criminal sentencing under state sentencing guidelines. Sanctions are presumed to be certain, and the types of sanctions imposed are dictated by formally rational criteria such as the severity of violations and offenders' prior history. The discretionary decision making of parole officers is restricted, with the intent of providing a structured, consistent, incremental response to noncompliance (Burke 1997; Taxman et al. 1999). Despite their potential, however, the effects of these reforms on violation response procedures have received little empirical attention.

Examining the effects of policies designed to constrain justice system actors' discretion illustrates the tension between formal and substantive rationality (Savelsberg 1992; Ulmer & Kramer 1996). …

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