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The Parole Board, a Step Nearer to Gone?

The Parole Board, A Step Nearer To Gone?

In 1981 Washington State legislature passed the Sentencing Reform Act. The SRA implemented determinate sentencing for all, and fixed a date for abolishing the parole board. The original principles of the SRA were fairly good, and may have worked well enough if the legislation had not been constantly tinkered with in the intervening years. The Washington courts have consistently resisted applying the SRA principles fairly and equitably to prisoners who were convicted prior to 1984 effective date of the act. The parole board has struggled to resist implementing the SRA as if its very life were being threatened ... no wonder, since the SRA would abolish the board! As a result of the pressure placed on it by the board, the courts, and various special interest groups, the state legislature has annually modified the SRA, and repeatedly extended the life of the parole board.

The original SRA sharply limited the criteria which could be taken into account when determining the length of an offender's punishment. The seriousness of the offense category and the circumstances of the particular crime, along with the extent of the offender's prior convictions were criteria which were just, objective, and could be administered fairly and equitably. Those principles, and the SRA's sentencing standards and guideline ranges, were to have been applied to pre-SRA offenders as well.

As it happened, the state legislature could not leave well enough alone. They buckled under the political pressures brought to bear from groups who opposed the SRA's principles. Not only have lawmakers repeatedly extended the life of the parole board, they have adopted new criteria which have worked to contaminate the board's sentencing practices as applied to pre-SRA offenders. These additional factors include the recommendations of the trial judge and prosecuting attorney (not the defense attorney, though), the different charging and disposition practices under the indeterminate sentencing system, and mandating that the board consider something as abstract and subjective as "public safety" their highest priority when making release decisions.

In addition to introducing the myriad of criteria relevant only to improper or unachievable goals, the lawmakers have not so much as attempted to address the dubious concept of "rehabilitation" it abandoned when adopting the punishment oriented SRA. This failure on the part of the legislature leaves the board free to continue with its discriminatory race and class bias in making release decisions. It has allowed the board to continue its capricious game of guessing about an offender's future dangerousness, and doing so in the absence of any scientific or validated basis for such predictions.

Most of us on the inside know that parole supervision of released prisoners is both ineffective and a waste of taxpayers' money. In one way or another we have also experienced the board's arbitrary and capricious decision making process. Some months ago we carried an article in which the board had ordered a prisoner paroled (they found him "rehabilitated"), while at the same time the Department of Corrections was recommending him for civil commitment under this state's new dangerous sex offender law. Finally, each of us pre-SRA prisoners knows the emotional torture of the indeterminate sentencing system. As one guy recently put it: "No matter what the other injustice and illegalities of the dual sentencing system are, surely this one aspect - the never knowing when - is the cruelest and most insidious of all."

Every pre-SPA prisoner would like to be able to point to a date and confidently say, "Here, this year I'll be going home." This writer's case is as good an example as any. I am serving my seventeenth year of continuous confinement on a first-degree assault conviction in which nobody was physically injured in the commission of the crime. It was also my first arrest for a violent offense. Yet because of the indiscriminate power bestowed upon the board in making its release decisions, I have no clear idea of when I can expect to 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. I believe a large part of the problem is that prisoners who display a sense of dignity and self-respect in their dealings with the system may tend to contradict the board's image of its own omnipotence and self-righteousness. Prisoners who are dishonest and manipulative, who tell their captors what 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 release. They're "rehabilitated."

The rehabilitation sham is continued because of the failure of the legislature to abolish or modify Washington statute RCW 9.95.100, which mandates that the parole board cannot release an offender prior to the expiration of his maximum term "unless his 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 board experience, the rehabilitative ideal has proven to be unworkable. Standards of rehabilitation and predisposition of future dangerousness require determinations which are impossible to make with present or foreseeable methods.

Today's legislators are not unlike those of ancient Rome, who used the politics of crime as a Coliseum spectacle to divert attention from the more fundamental and pressing social problems of the period. Their continuing enactment of increasingly repressive criminal legislation creates the illusion of decisive political action, while ignoring the troublesome and expensive root causes of the problem. They toy with mere symptoms while turning a blind eye to the underlying social illness. They deal in illusion and do not, in fact, serve the real interests of the public.

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