Parole is a Good Idea. We Need More of It.

The biggest mistake our carceral state makes is keeping people in far longer than necessary for deterrence or punishment

Recently, some members of the Kennedy family, along with some of their admirers among the punditry, complained that Sirhan Sirhan, the infamous assassin of Robert Kennedy, is up for parole. Now, obviously, we all understand why families of victims of terrible crimes don’t want to see the perpetrators released from prison. But as a matter of policy, Sirhan’s case is unfortunately all too rare.

Parole used to be extremely common. Indeed, in some states, sentences were completely indeterminate- a person might be imprisoned for “15 to life”, which could mean as low as 13 years (after some good time credits) or as long as many decades. What determined the length? The parole board.

The thing is, this made a certain amount of sense. Essentially, a determinate sentence (such as “10 years”) indicates a certitude about future dangerousness that nobody really has. In fact, many criminals “age out” of crime- they commit a lot of crimes when they are in their teens and twenties, and then eventually grow up and become more responsible. Long, determinate prison sentences mean that the American public is paying big bucks to keep a lot of not particularly dangerous people in prison for far longer than necessary.

In contrast, a parole board can make the dangerousness determination in the present tense. They can talk to the prisoner, look at psychiatric reports as well as reports from the jailers, even talk to other inmates who know him. And they can also look at the severity of the offense, what age it was committed at, how old the person is now, what sort of prior record the person has, etc. They can predict whether the person is likely to reoffend.

This isn’t rocket science, even though it might seem difficult. Prisoner A has been a model prisoner, no fights, no infractions, spends his time in the prison work programs and got a community college degree while incarcerated; prisoner B has 15 disciplinary actions, mostly for acts of violence, has refused to work or go to classes, and constantly gets into disputes and verbal altercations with his cellmates and had to be moved to solitary three different times. Which prisoner should get released on parole?

Ah, but I hear you say, “what about punishment?” What about it? Ever been in a prison? Even as a visitor, it is a harrowing experience. Constant searches, constant surveillance, restrictions on movement, guards with guns everywhere, electric fences, etc. And you have to spend a lot of time with people who did very violent things. (Plus think about the more prosaic aspects of life, like the fact that you can’t go for a walk when you want to, can’t have sex or masturbate or surf the Internet, etc.)

In fact, our entire discourse about punishment is screwed up. “Four years?”, someone will say. “How can they give that guy a slap on the wrist?” Four years in an American prison, of course, is not a slap on the wrist. It’s a severe punishment.

So when we are talking about parole, we are talking about letting people out of prison who have already been severely punished. Sirhan has been in for 50 years- that’s an unimaginable amount of punishment. Whatever deterrence value was achieved by his sentence has already been achieved- no criminal says “I would do it if I would only face 50 years, but not if I face life”.

The problem is our politics surrounding crime has sounded a single note, and that is more and more punishment. More death penalties, more life without parole sentences, and far, far less parole. The federal prison system, which is now swallowing up more and more criminals as crimes get written into federal statutes right and left, abolished parole decades ago. Instead, the federal system has “supervised release”, which is the worst of all worlds- you have to serve your sentence FIRST (and federal prison officials have no discretion, other than 15% of the sentence in good time credits, to let you out early, no matter how non-dangerous a prisoner is), and then AFTER having done your time, they let you out but impose a bunch of draconian restrictions on you. (Typical supervised release conditions include such things as no drinking and even no looking at porn on the Internet!)

And as a result, we have a bunch of geriatrics in prison, and a whole lot of people who aren’t really dangerous by any metric.

The backstop objection of tough on crime folks is that maybe you will let someone out who is still dangerous. Which is true. But it’s also rare. Charles Manson came up for parole over and over again. He was never paroled. Parole boards aren’t stupid.

And in any event, the only way to truly avoid letting a dangerous person out of prison would be to make the punishment for all felonies life without parole. Determinate sentencing systems still let people out of prison; they just give convicts less of an incentive to behave better.

And all of this costs so much money. Housing even one prisoner costs tens of thousands of dollars a year. You want to focus those resources on housing people who really pose a danger to the public. A functioning, effective parole board can save the taxpayers lots of money.

Bottom line, we need to bring back parole. Determinate sentences should be reserved for only the most dangerous and incorrigible offenders; everyone else should be evaluated for early release periodically. Doing so isn’t being soft on crime, it’s being smart on crime.