Parole System Faulted as a Revolving Door

Times Staff Writer

The parole system is ineffective in helping convicts avoid being arrested after they are released, according to an Urban Institute study questioning whether parole supervision helps reduce crime.

Using federal Bureau of Justice Statistics data on prisoners released in 15 states, including California, in 1994 -- the most recent multistate information available -- the study, to be released today, found similar arrest rates among convicts on parole and those released unconditionally after completing their full sentences.

There are two types of parole: discretionary release, in which a convict is screened by a parole board to determine his readiness to live outside confinement, and mandatory release, when a convict has served his original sentence, minus time for good behavior, and completes the balance of his sentence in the community. Both put a convict under the supervision of a parole officer.


Of those released unconditionally -- meaning they served their full term and walked out the door with no further supervision -- 62% were arrested again.

By comparison, 61% of parolees who left prison under mandatory release were arrested again; of those released at the discretion of a parole board, 54% were arrested again.

The Urban Institute, a nonpartisan social policy organization in Washington, called the difference between the arrest rates “surprisingly small” -- particularly since discretionary parolees were thought to be more likely to succeed because they had to meet a parole board’s standards for attitude, motivation and preparedness.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think parole should carry the whole burden of reforming people,” said Amy Solomon, the study’s lead researcher. “At the same time, supervision should be a contributor to successful reentry, and right now, it’s not living up to that role.”

The success of parole can vary by demographic, the study found.

The likelihood of arrest for women on parole, either discretionary or mandatory, was 16 percentage points lower than for women released unconditionally.

Male parolees who had been convicted of drug, property or violent crimes -- which comprised about 80% of the sample studied -- were more likely to be arrested again despite being under supervision.

In some cases, convicts on mandatory parole had higher rates of arrest than those on unconditional release or discretionary parole, most likely because of increased surveillance and drug testing.

The report noted that supervision of parolees was often minimal, with parole officers sometimes managing as many as 70 of them. In addition, parole officers may be located away from where their parolees live and may not have the best understanding of their parolees’ home areas.

Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, was not surprised by the results.

“People think that parole has a rehabilitative function, but that’s not the case anymore,” he said. “The fact is that parole is so underfunded there aren’t any resources to facilitate reintegration.... The system is set up to fail.”

Solomon had similar beliefs about overhauling the parole system.

“Supervision should also include a mix of treatment and surveillance, not surveillance alone, as is more typical these days,” she said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has promised to improve California’s prison system -- the nation’s largest, with about 164,000 inmates, 32 facilities and 49,000 employees. A review of the parole process, with an eye toward improving efforts at rehabilitating prisoners, is being considered, though Sacramento’s pockets are tight and plans are sketchy.

“Parole as it’s currently being operated has not proven to be a success, but that doesn’t rule out the fact that other kinds of parole could make a big difference to protecting the public,” said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

“There’s a sincere effort in California to look at a different approach.”

Michael P. Jacobson, who ran New York City’s jails and probation system in the 1990s, cited a lack of funds as a principal problem in reforming criminals with minimal education or drug or mental problems.

“You’re going to have incredibly high return rates if you spend next to nothing on dealing with some of the issues that these folks face when they come out,” said Jacobson, who heads the Vera Institute of Justice in New York. “There’s never been any political capital in funding parole appropriately.”

Times staff writer Jenifer Warren in Sacramento contributed to this report.