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Parole is Not the Solution

59.2 percent of parolees are back in prison within two years.

O.J. Simpson’s release from prison on parole has reignited a decades-long debate – should the federal prison system bring back parole? This contentious method of sentence-reduction was a hot-topic in the 1980s and continues to spark disagreements today.

In 1984, Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act. This bill eliminated parole for federal defendants who committed crimes after November 1st, 1987. State systems were still able to adopt parole, but at the federal level criminals were required to serve the entirety of their sentence.

Some may view this as rather harsh and heavy-handed, but it is important to understand the context in which this act was passed. Before this law came into play, it was possible for a judge to give a sentence stretching multiple decades only for the defendant to be released in a few years. The natural concern legislators had was that felons would be released from prison too quickly. Lawmakers found that many prisoners released on parole were committing crimes that could have been prevented had they served their full sentence.

In addition to preventing prisoners from being released back into society too early, this act also established something called the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC). The goal of this commission was to articulate sentencing guidelines for federal courts across the country. Under this agency, the federal court system has seen widespread reform on charges related to anything from drug offenses to manslaughter. Through this system, we have seen more consistent sentencing making parole unnecessary in many cases.

What does this mean for the current debate over parole? It should bring pause as to what the purpose of parole is and what function it would serve in the modern prison system.

Most people regard parole as a means of offering a second chance to rehabilitated prisoners. However, parole eligibility is not solely based on good behavior, rather it mainly revolves on how much of one’s term has been served. In most cases, if a prisoner has served one-third of his or her sentence they become eligible for parole. It seems counterintuitive to sentence someone to 20 years in prison for them only to serve 6 or 7 years. Why not just sentence them to 6 or 7 to begin with and skip the formality of parole?

It is fair to offer inmates who behave well the opportunity to get out of their sentences early, but parole, by no means, does this. Rather, the current federal procedure of offering early release for federal prisoners who demonstrate “exemplary” behavior achieves this purpose. Under this system, prisoners can earn up to 54 days per year off their sentence if they meet certain behavioral benchmarks. While this is largely a subjective measure, it ensures that the offenders who are released from prison early are fit to return to society. Parole simply cannot guarantee nearly the success rate that the good behavior policy procures.

Supervised Release is also another measure currently in place that effectively serves a similar purpose to federal parole. A judge can sentence an individual and upon release require that they undergo a period of supervision where they must meet various standards or risk being returned to prison. This essentially allows judges to consider lesser sentences for convicts and allows them to oversee their transition back to society. In more ways than one, this system mirrors the former federal parole structure without the risk that an individual is released long before their court-mandated sentence. Supervised Release manages to hold prisoners responsible for reintegrating to society while allowing them to serve reduced sentences.

If you aren’t already convinced parole is an ineffective means of helping criminals return to society, then look no further then California. A 2010 report released by the state revealed that of 116,015 parolees, 55,049, or 47.4%, return to prison within a year – this number jumps to 59.2% within two years. If the goal of parole is to keep criminals from returning to prison then these numbers should be alarming.

Each of these two alternatives instituted by the Sentencing Reform Act effectively serves the role a federal parole system would accomplish without much of the baggage true parole entails. With Supervised Release and good behavior rules already in place, there is simply no reason for parole in the federal prison system. If we truly want to reform the federal prison system we need to look into reforming sentencing rather than needlessly using parole as a method of releasing inmates who were sentenced unjustly.

Joel Gillison is a student the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill studying public policy.

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