US Parole Activists Aim to Overhaul a Failing System

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From Truth-out:

"Prisoner" by Ade McOren-Campbell

“Prisoner” by Ade McOren-Campbell

The United States has the shameful reputation of being the world’s largest jailer, and as the Prison Policy Initiative reported in March, 2017, 2.3 million people are currently locked up in prisons and jails. This mass incarceration continues in spite of the fact that a Brennan Center for Justice report shows that crime is down and rates remain near historic lows.

Furthermore, our punishment system extends beyond the prison walls and includes destructive parole policies. “Max Out,” a 2014 Pew Charitable Trusts report, details that over the past three decades, those sent to prison have been serving longer sentences. They are less likely to earn parole, the opportunity to finish one’s sentence in the community. This occurs in spite of the fact that research shows that longer sentences do not make us safer and do not prevent people from returning to prison, even as they cost more.

But here’s the good news: Activists across the county are seeking remedies for people impacted by this failing parole system, and in some cases, changing the system itself.

How Is Parole Failing?

Parole is often portrayed as “a free pass,” but this is far from the truth in a system dominated by punishment. Support for those on parole can be nonexistent, while supervision is often harshly levied. Topeka Sam, a founding member of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, recently wrote about parole for Open Society Voices. Sam wrote, “The system has also created an additional layer of law enforcement control, intrusion, and surveillance — especially in communities of color, which are heavily policed already.”

In some states, even the slightest technical violation, such as a failure to call one’s parole officer on time, can result in a return to prison. Parole boards are notoriously staffed by those with law enforcement backgrounds, and tend to overemphasize the risk that those they release will reoffend. As Beth Schwartzapfel wrote in the Marshall Project in 2015, “Parole boards are so deeply cautious about releasing prisoners who could come back to haunt them that they release only a small fraction of those eligible.” Marc Morjé Howard, director of Georgetown University’s Prison and Justice Initiative, explained in a 2017 article in The Atlantic that the process is highly politicized. He said, “There are direct consequences for political officials if — heaven forbid, but it will happen — there is a mistake and a person gets out who commits another crime. The mentality becomes: “Why take that chance? Let’s just keep everybody locked up.”

As I wrote for Truthout in February 2017, incarcerated people who have been sentenced to “life” but are eligible for parole are serving particularly excessive sentences. The Sentencing Project found that “lifers admitted to prison in 1991 could expect to serve an average of 21.2 years, but that lifers admitted in 1997 served an average of 29 years, reflecting a 37 percent increase in time served.” “Max Out” reveals that over the past three decades, state policy choices have not only led to longer sentences, but to those behind bars serving higher proportions of their sentences. In some cases, this is due to “truth-in-sentencing” laws, i.e. policies or legislation that aim to abolish or curb parole, insisting that prisoners serve the period to which they have been sentenced. In other instances, limits on release eligibility or the outright elimination of parole in some states are the culprits. In 2009, sentences were an average of nine months longer than those 20 years earlier. This also goes hand in hand with an 119 percent increase in unsupervised releases between 1990 and 2012, a practice shown to produce more recidivism and higher costs.

Because parole is defined and practiced differently in states across the country, Truthout talked to activists working on this issue in four different states, focusing on their struggles and successes in helping people gain access to parole.

New York Steps It Up

In New York, legislators, formerly incarcerated people and community groups joined forces to take action on parole this year, according to the Albany Times Union. The coalition addressed what the New York Times called the “scourge of racial bias” and the inhumanity of New York’s incarceration system.

Mujahid Farid, lead organizer for the New York grassroots group Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), has been fighting to instigate a parole commissioner replacement strategy since 1999. In a telephone interview, Farid told Truthout, “People behind the walls said a replacement strategy was needed.” In 2015 alone, New York parole commissioners denied release to 80 percent of the more than 12,000 applicants interviewed, wrote the Times Union. Farid said the basis for these decisions was too heavily focused on the nature of the original crimes, instead of on other factors that the law requires parole boards to consider, such as participation in rehabilitative programs, release plans and the risk of recidivism. Farid himself saw the parole board 10 times before he was released from prison in 2011. He points to another applicant, John Mackenzie, who committed suicide in 2016 after having his parole denied for the 10th time.

Read the full article here.