Thursday, July 5, 2007

Are Second Chances Mandatory?

The United States now has more than two million people behind bars, a number that has been rising steadily for decades. But state lawmakers who once would have rushed to build new prisons have begun to see that prison-building is not the best or most cost-effective way to fight crime or protect the public’s safety.

Several states have instead begun to focus on developing community-based programs that deal with low-level, nonviolent offenders without locking them up. And they have begun to look at ways to control recidivism with programs that help newly released people find jobs, housing, drug treatment and mental health care — essential services if they are to live viable lives in a society that has historically shunned them.[1]

As our prison population continues to rise and there doesn’t seem to be any slowdown in sight, we are soon going to have to make show difficult choices. Will we continue to lock people up; forcing states to allocate more resources for prison building, supervision, and support services. We will begin to recognize that the majority of offenders are non-violent and primarily low level drug defendants and change our antiquated drug laws. Or, we will begin to recognize that a large majority of the prison population are offenders who were on probation or parole and have violated some technical stipulation of their release.

I always enjoy writing about this issue, because it gives the law and order crowd a chance to rant about some probation or parole who slaughtered a family in Iowa and how we need to get tough on these godless hordes. The truth of the matter is that there are millions of men and women who are on parole and probation in this country that you never hear about. They try to the best of their ability to live within the guidelines of their release. Even though many of them are struggling under the stigma of being a felon or ex-con, they are trying to uphold the law and make a living. While no one wants to coddle criminals and talking tough on crime is a politician’s best friend, I think we need to take time out and look at who the majority of people we are incarcerating are. The majority of our prison and jail populations are not murderers, rapists, or robbers. Nearly half of these people locked up are a direct result of our current drug policy.[2] This post is not however about those laws; this post is about what we do with these people after they are released from jail and prison.

For those who are unenlightened to probation and parole rules, they are designed for failure. They require the individuals to try to lead a life no adult in the United States could lead. The rules of parole/probation vary from state to state, but most have the same basic concepts. The rules restrict the movement of the individual, so that the individual must report and request permission for any movement outside of the jurisdiction they are in. If the person works in an adjoining state he must receive daily permission to travel to work. The person must agree to have his home and/or person searched at any time by the parole officer. The person must submit to drug testing at anytime and the person cannot drink alcohol or be in a place that serves alcoholic beverages. The person must pay a fee for being on parole, even though he may not be employed. I find it particularly interesting that we want the poor to pay for their own incarceration and release. We now have the poorest of people, many of them incarcerated because they are poor, paying for their own release services. If the fees are not paid they are subject to have their parole revoked. These state legislatures sure know an easy target when they see one; they can pass legislation against the same people who do not have the right to vote against it. I can hardly wait for them to mandate prison industries for inmates to fully compensate the state for their incarceration and maybe allow the state to make a few bucks on the side.

Increasing rate of revocations. There is some evidence that both the number and rate of revocations have increased and these have had a significant impact on prison and jail populations (Parent et al.). For example, in 1988 more than 60 percent of Oregon's prison admissions were due to probation or parole revocations. Furthermore, two-thirds of the prison admissions in Texas in 1989, and 60 percent of California's prison admissions, were violators (Parent et al.).

Parent and colleagues note that while the increase in probation/parole populations alone might account for the increase in revocations, interviews with practitioners reveal that in some states the rate of revocations has increased as well. Increased rates of revocations have been attributed to many factors including: (1) the shift toward control-oriented practices of community supervision; (2) the law-enforcement background of new probation/parole officers (as opposed to the social work background of the past); (3) an increase in the number of conditions of probation; (4) improvement in the methods of monitoring violations; (5) the more serious offender placed on community supervision caseloads; and (6) an increase in probation and parole caseloads (Parent et al.).

Empirical data on technical violations. While data collected over time is not readily available, the largest follow-up study of felony probationers in the United States revealed that a substantial proportion of probationers fail to successfully complete their sentence (Langan and Cunnif). For example, within a three-year follow-up period, 62 percent of a sample of 79,000 felony probationers had been either arrested for another felony or had violated a condition of probation resulting in a disciplinary hearing (Langan and Cunnif). Thirty percent of those had both been arrested and had a disciplinary hearing, 13 percent had only been arrested, and 19 percent had only a disciplinary hearing. Furthermore, 46 percent of the sample were ultimately incarcerated. Of those probationers who were incarcerated, 35 percent were incarcerated for committing only a technical violation (Langan and Cunnif).

In contrast, however, Clear and colleagues' evaluation of 7,501 felony and misdemeanant probationers terminated from six probation agencies revealed that approximately one quarter of the probationers committed violations, half of which were violations of technical conditions of supervision. Further, they found that most violators misbehaved only once. Therefore, the majority of probationers successfully completed their sentence without incident. In short, their study seemed to refute the assumption that due to early release and diversion from prison, the probation population has become increasingly dangerous.[3]

It is time for us to begin to recognize who the majority of our incarcerated are and begin to tailor programs to match that reality. It is time for the politics of fear to end not only in the international arena, but at home as well. Do not get me wrong there a number of dangerous people in our prisons and they should remain there, but the numbers do not support the system we currently have in place. We need to tailor release programs that match the offenders and the crimes. Should we hold the person arrested for a simple drug possession to the same strict standards as the armed robber? Is our goal to rehabilitate these people back into society or to treat them as pariah? If it is the latter, then we will not be able to build enough prisons to keep pace with expansion.




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