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PEW Public Safety Report: Prisoncrats Abuse Their Probation/Parole Violation Powers So As To Stymie Offenders’ Re-entry Into Society

A November 2007 national study by the PEW Public Safety Performance Project concluded that the policy of returning parolees and probationers to custody for other than new offenses has the perverse effect of frustrating their reentry into society and their emancipation from the criminal justice system. This result is not merely anomalous, however, but is malevolently driven by prisoncrats’ (1) self-serving financial motivation to fill every available bed and (2) dark desire to clandestinely inflict continuing punishment on past offenders.

The purpose of the report is to provide guidance to criminal justice policy makers and practitioners when grappling with rising prison populations. The study focuses on the distinction between returns to custody solely for technical viola-tions of parole or probation (discretionary revocations) and returns for new offenses. Not lost on the authors was the sharp increase in technical revocations at a rate far exceeding that for new criminal commitments. The other key observation was that technical revocations paradoxically only thwarted the public objective of successfully reintegrating felons into society and getting them off prison rolls.

First, the report notes that some states appear to have a high rate of technical violations while others do not. Even within a state, large variances between regions appear. Plainly, whatever rules exist for violations are being applied too subjectively, “raising questions about evenhandedness and fundamental fairness.” But, hopefully, the authors note, this also suggests an “opportunity to be more strategic in using the power to revoke release.”

Recognized root causes for violations are substance abuse, indigence, and poor job skills/education. Other common handicaps include lack of a stable residence, pendant court fees/restitution, and support payments for dependents. When an ex-prisoner is struggling to regain his or her footing in the community, reformation hurdles can thus become self-defeating.

The results are both predictable and real. The number of state prisoners in the U.S. quadrupled between 1980 and 2006, to 1.55 million. The number of releases to parole in 2003 was 656,320, a 50% increase since just 1990. Add to that the 4.2 million people on probation (up from just 3 million in 1995), and one has a huge base of prisoners poised to fail again if there is no aid to their recovery.

Most significantly, of the increase in prison population between 1992 and 2001, fully 60% was from reincarceration of technical parole violators. Likewise, probationers who violated and were sent to prison increased 50% between 1990 and 2004, to 330,000 prisoners. Mirroring the human misery index is the national prison cost growth, from $6 billion in 1982 to $39 billion today. Presently, California alone faces a $14 billion state budget deficit. Simultaneously, they are looking over their shoulders at a determined three-judge federal panel that is poised to slash California’s prison population to permit healthcare and mental health treatment to rise to constitutional standards.

The authors suggest new strategic approaches to reducing prison overpopulation. One is close collaboration be-tween the revocation authority (the courts) and the supervising authority (parole agents). A second is to redefine the goals of such supervision so as to make the agents responsible not for returning the prisoners to prison, but rather for making them succeed, using a system of positive incentives. The overarching premise is that one must first want pris-oners to get past the revolving door of the criminal justice system. Next should come a coordinated and graduated se-ries of incentives and rewards for succeeding in this goal. Only then will technical violation “recidivism,” presently a cruel artifact of prisoncrats, fade into the sunset. Not discussed is simply ending parole supervision and instituing true determinate sentencing where prisoners are simply released after discharging their sentences. See: When Offenders Break the Rules: Smart Responses to Parole and Probation Violations, PEW Center on the States, No. 3, November 2007.

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