Bring Parole Back to Federal Prisons

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Federal Prisons have not granted parole since 1987. It’s time to bring parole back.

In light of O.J. Simpson’s release from prison on parole, the controversial form of sentence-reduction has received more attention than usual. Parole has not existed in the federal prison system since 1987 when tougher sentencing regulations passed by Congress in 1984 went into effect. In addition, several states have experimented with abolishing their parole boards in favor of “truth in sentencing,” which requires those convicted of crimes to serve the entirety of their sentences. 

It’s understandable that the general public may feel as though the government is doing them a disservice when it funnels violent felons back into society. Knowing that there’s a chance (albeit an extremely small one) that the stranger you make small talk with at the park, or the cashier at the grocery store, may have a history of violent crime can certainly be unnerving. But there are important benefits to granting qualifying prisoners parole which should not be discounted. Most notably, using parole helps shift the focus of imprisonment from retribution to rehabilitation, which is ultimately more productive and more ethical.

Of course, retribution has its place in the criminal justice system; if prison were not known for being unpleasant, we would probably have a lot more criminals on our hands. However, it’s easy to forget about the many problems that are entrenched into American society that complicate the criminal justice system and impact who ends up in jail and for how long.

Just to name one example, black people are significantly more likely to be arrested for the possession of marijuana than white people, despite the fact that marijuana use among the two races is about the same. Obviously, the main concern with parole is the release of violent felons, not marijuana users.

However, study after study reveals that black people are typically sentenced more harshly than white people for committing the same crimes, violent or not. There are other factors that play into injustice in the criminal justice system that should also be considered. For example, Americans living in poverty are more likely to find themselves behind prison bars. We know that much, but why?

Being poor is no excuse for committing crimes, but it is important to consider the places from which people come. In times of desperation, the very poor may turn to illegal means when trying to make ends meet. There are good people, including folks suffering from mental illness, who may find themselves in situations that they would not if their illnesses were being treated properly. While having a mental illness does not absolve you of responsibility for your behavior, it certainly makes it more difficult to live a conventional American life, abiding by the legal systems in place. Playing by the rules does not work for Americans for whom the rules were not built, and this should be accounted for in the way we see crime and those who perpetrate it.

Clearly, America has its share of social and economic issues that complicate the criminal justice system. This is why working towards rehabilitation is so important: it gives fundamentally good people who made mistakes a chance to learn from their pasts, and to move on from them. It means that instead of allocating a ridiculous quantity of American tax dollars to keeping people in prison for their whole lives, we can instead fund a parole system that helps get criminals who are no longer seen to be a threat to society back on their feet so that they can contribute to society in a meaningful way.

Those who are granted parole are incentivized to meet the conditions of their parole so that they can maintain their independence; the system is predicated on reforming and helping criminals, and on the view that human nature is flawed but hopeful. Of course, those who are on parole are closely supervised by parole officers, which helps prevent recidivism. The system is constructed to provide Americans who demonstrate a willingness to change a second chance, which is something that aligns with everything America stands for: freedom, growth, and the belief that you can succeed no matter where you come from. Knowing that there is a chance for parole can also incentivize inmates to behave better and accumulate useful skills while imprisoned for when they are released. 

And yet, despite the evidence that parole is an effective way to give those who have made serious mistakes a second chance, 16 states have totally abolished parole, and an additional four have abolished parole for violent offenders. While there certainly is an argument against the parole system, the benefits far outweigh the potential problems. Identifying prisoners who are unlikely to reoffend (particularly older prisoners) and giving them the opportunity to prove themselves is a positive component of any criminal justice system. If the states who have had parole banned for much too long were to reinstate it, they would be doing their part to reform the prison system and to responsibly incorporate compassion and positivity into American criminal justice.

Cassie Kuhn is a student at the University of Alabama. She has written for the university's paper, The Crimson White.

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