The Parole System Is Broken. Can Anyone Fix It?

How politics and paranoia contribute to mass incarceration.
An inmate prepares to walk out for a parole board hearing. (Photo: Jabin Botsford/‘The Washington Post’ via Getty Images)
Sep 10, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

A police officer shot to death. A basketball star’s cousin killed in cross fire. A woman sexually assaulted on the way home from work.

These are the stories the media most often tells about convicted criminals released on parole. Their shock value makes it clear why they made headlines, but they also largely overshadow the many people who don’t commit new crimes after release from prison. Stories of people who go on to lead quiet, productive lives just don’t stoke the fires of indignation.

Last month, a different kind of parole tragedy made headlines when 70-year-old John MacKenzie was found dead in his New York prison cell. MacKenzie, who fatally shot a police officer in 1975, apparently took his life after being denied parole for the 10th time.

“MacKenzie warranted release by all measures,” said Ed Rhine, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University. “He accomplished more incredible things in prison than most men and women ever do,” including earning multiple degrees and creating a Victims Awareness Program.

There are 2.2 million prisoners in the U.S. About 95 percent will be released, and nearly 80 percent of prisoners are released under parole supervision, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Many are elderly, like MacKenzie, and therefore unlikely to re-offend. Although recidivism among parolees is as high as 40 percent, less than one in 10 return to prison as a result of a new conviction rather than for a violation of supervision.

So how can parole boards begin to function in a way that emphasizes a prisoner’s potential rather than his or her past?

“The New York board is a good illustration of how not to do the business of parole release,” Rhine said. It and other states could start by depoliticizing the board’s role, some advocates argue.

“We need to have more distance between the governor and the parole board,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a criminal justice research analyst at The Sentencing Project.

In 37 states, including New York, the governor appoints parole board members—and can fire them too. The New York board’s focus on MacKenzie’s crime, rather than his later accomplishments and good behavior while incarcerated, is not unusual among releasing authorities in other states. The tendency is driven in part by fear that a released prisoner will commit another heinous crime but also by a lack of job security—a vulnerability made clear in 2011 when then-Gov. Deval Patrick ousted Massachusetts’ five-member parole board after a released prisoner killed a police officer.

“There wasn’t a board member in the country that didn’t notice what happened in Massachusetts,” Rhine told TakePart. “In large measure, these are gubernatorial appointees that carry very little insulation—there isn’t any question that they are risk averse in their decision making.”

Another way to move toward a system that is driven by best practices as well as consideration of a prisoner’s future might be to take a cue from courtrooms. That’s according to Kevin Reitz, a professor of criminal law and procedure at the University of Minnesota Law School. (Reitz and Rhine work together at the law school’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, where they are conducting extensive research on parole practices nationwide.)

“As a matter of public policy, [parole] is the most important decision, yet we invest it with almost no sense of procedure, transparency, or law,” Reitz told TakePart. “Parole boards are so unaccountable—there’s no adversary process; there’s no lawyer there to appeal a decision.”

Parole board procedures and their transparency vary greatly from state to state, and none of the experts TakePart spoke to would point to one as a model. But both Rhine and Reitz said Colorado’s parole board is moving toward a better process. Of all the boards surveyed by the Robina Institute, Colorado’s was the most forthcoming, according to Reitz.

Protestors seek parole justice after the suicide of John MacKenzie. (Image: YouTube)

“They had better information systems and data and were willing to show us whatever we wanted to see,” he said. “They were also self-critical and constantly changing their procedures.”

Unlike those of many states, Colorado’s board appears committed to parole guidelines that presume a person coming before the board will be released rather than remain incarcerated. The researchers were also impressed by the state’s use of a quality risk assessment tool and the board’s willingness to share information about how it works.

Still, there are far more problems with parole procedures, and men and women who are repeatedly denied release, than there are solutions in place.

“All the people I’ve worked with in this space seem to recognize that there are serious problems with the process,” said Reitz. “This is a problem that’s national.”

It’s not just criminals who suffer as a result, as Ghandnoosh pointed out. “Keeping people in [prison] as long as possible to minimize risk ties up public safety dollars that could be invested in preventing crime in the first place,” she said.