For Prisoners, It's a Nearly No-Parole World

Article excerpt

Gerald Balone is at the heart of an emerging debate over the country's increasingly tough parole system.

Convicted of murder in a botched robbery in which three people were killed, Mr. Balone says he's done everything in his power to atone for the crime he committed as a teen. In the more than 30 years since, he's apologized and asked the victims' families for forgiveness. He's gotten two bachelor's degrees and a master's in theology.

He's worked to be a role model for other prisoners, counseling them on everything from AIDS to aggression.

Last month, he was denied parole for a fourth time.

"I have dedicated the rest of my life to helping others in whatever way I can," Balone writes from the Collins Correctional Facility in upstate New York. "Needless to say, this last parole decision was extremely painful."

Over the past decade, parole boards have made it more difficult for lawbreakers to get out early, particularly in cases of violent offenders like Balone. Thirteen states and the federal government have gone as far as doing away with parole altogether, replacing it with a system of predetermined sentences and release times.

It's the latest chapter in what some criminal-justice experts call the "Willie Horton" effect. Named for the furloughed prisoner whose repeat offense hurt Michael Dukakis's presidential bid in 1988, it's a fear of releasing anyone because the parole board - and the politicians who appoint them - get blamed if anything goes wrong.

Now, however, backlash is growing. "A lot of this has been driven by legislation and political edict, rather than good parole practices," says Gail Hughes, executive secretary of the Association of Paroling Authorities International in California, Mo. "The parole board is the entity that can look at the individual's progress, consider the victim's concerns, and weigh all of the factors involved. To eliminate them from the criminal- justice system is sort of foolhardy."

But advocates of "get tough" parole policies contend they've helped drive the crime rate to 30-year lows. They also say the shift away from parole, where a board decides individual cases, to a predetermined sentencing structure is fairer to both prisoners and the community.

"This is a truth-in-sentencing issue," says Tom Grant of the New York State Division of Parole. "By doing away with the parole board's discretionary release, it reintroduces fairness to the system. We know when they're going to get out, and so do they."

Moral questions

Yet a growing number of critics are raising constitutional as well as moral questions about what they see as unnecessarily punitive policies. They argue that denying parole robs prisoners of hope and the motivation to reform themselves.

Recently, a court in California ruled that Gov. Gray Davis's policy, which effectively denies parole to convicted murderers, is unconstitutional. Prison Fellowship International, moved by stories of seemingly capricious denials, has undertaken a report to document their impact. …

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