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Why Do We Still Have a Parole Board?

Why Do We Still Have A Parole Board?
By Ed Mead

Most of us on the inside know that parole supervision of released prisoners is both ineffective and a waste of taxpayers' money. Many of us have also experienced, in one way of another, the board's arbitrary and capricious decision-making process. Indeed, we have an article in this very issue of PLN in which the board ordered a guy paroled a "rehabilitated" inmate while, at the same time, the Department of Corrections was referring him for civil commitment under the new dangerous sex offender law! And finally, we each know the emotional torture suffered under the indeterminate sentencing system. As one prisoner recently put it: "No matter what the other injustices and illegalities of the dual sentencing system are, surely this one aspect - the never knowing when you'll be released - is the cruelest and most insidious of all."

Every pre-SRA prisoner would like to be able to point to a date and confidently say, "Here, this year I'll be going home." An associate editor of PLN has a case like that of many others. He is serving his sixteenth year of a first-degree assault conviction. Nobody was physically injured in the commission of this crime, and it was his first arrest for a violent offense. Yet, because of the indiscriminate power bestowed upon the board in making its release decisions, he has no clear idea of when he will be released. This is despite the fact that the average term of confinement in this state for a first-degree assault is less than five years. Part of the problem (in very large part) is that prisoners who display a sense of dignity and self-respect in their dealings with the system tend to contradict the board's image of its own omnipotence and self-righteousness. Prisoners who are manipulative and dishonest, who tell their captors whatever they want to hear, ("Coming to prison was the best thing that ever happened to me" or "you know what's best for me" etc.) are the ones who earn the brass ring of limited freedom. They're "rehabilitated,"

The rehabilitation sham is continued because of the failure of the legislature to abolish or modify Washington state law RCW 9.95.100, which mandates that the parole board cannot release an offender prior to the expiration of his maximum term "unless rehabilitation has been complete..." Nowhere is the term "rehabilitation" defined, or any indication given as to how this elusive ideal can be measured. What is clear, though, is that in some hundred years of parole experience, the rehabilitative ideal has proven to be unworkable. Standards of rehabilitation and predictions of future dangerousness require determinations which are impossible to make with present or foreseeable methods.

Perhaps recognizing the inherent disadvantages in the parole system, or, more likely, being caught up in the latest "designer law" fad, the Washington state legislature passed the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) of 1981. The SRA implemented determinate sentencing for all, and fixed a date for abolishing the parole board. Things would have been fine had the legislature held its ground and the courts forced the parole board to follow the new sentencing law. But that was evidently too much to expect from lawmakers. Their continuous tinkering with the SRA provided a cheap substitute for decisive political action, and it did so with minimal risk of provoking organized opposition.

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