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
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
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."
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. …