The Parole Revocation Problem

03.06.18
Court House Pillars

After decades of upward trajectory, prison populations have finally stabilized – and even slightly decreased. This is due to a number of trends and policy changes, such as the repeal of state mandatory minimum laws, a reduction in violent crime, and in some cases, the court-ordered release of inmates from overcrowded prisons. However, there is one correctional practice that continues to make up a sizeable portion of prison and jail admissions: parole revocations. While the total number of offenders on parole or post-release supervision [1] has increased in the last few year, the rate of failure on parole has remained steady. On average, about 25% of all parole exists in the U.S. are due to reincarceration, although this rate varies substantially between states. For example, in Minnesota half of all post-release supervision exists are due to reincarceration, while in Pennsylvania about 18% are.

These stats suggest that parole release is almost breathtakingly ineffective, yet almost every state in the U.S. has committed to the practice. Heavily monitoring offenders after release is such a ubiquitous practice, few people can even imagine an alternative. The problems with parole, while obvious in some ways, present a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to cash-strapped states. Parole release is an inherently destabilizing process for offenders, yet state resources are overwhelmingly spent on surveillance rather than successful re-entry. While these individuals have been deemed good candidates for release, they re-enter society with a host of disadvantages. Few have stable, long-term housing. Almost none have jobs. They may be losing institutional access to psychiatric medication and substance abuse counseling. Depending on how long they were in prison, they may lack even more basic skills, such as filling out an online form. Some have family that will support them, but many do not  — and others, still, are prohibited from living with them.  On average, these individuals are already more likely to suffer from mental illness, have psychological deficits, grow up in poverty, and have low educational attainment. Upon release, they are expected to re-integrate into society while abiding by a dozen or more conditions that – if violated – will put them at risk for a return to prison for several months or, sometimes, several years. Most do just that.

On average, these individual are already more likely to suffer from mental illness, have psychological deficits, grow up in poverty, and have low educational attainment. Upon release, they are expected to re-integrate into society while abiding by a dozen or more conditions that – if violated – will put them at risk for a return to prison for several months or, sometimes, several years. Most do just that.

These conditions, which are assigned by parole boards and/or the parole office, are aimed at reducing the risk of re-offending by compelling offenders to develop pro-social skills and avoid risky behaviors. Many of the standard conditions are rational – such as avoiding criminal behavior or not contacting the victim. Others were adopted with good intentions, but can complicate re-entry, or outright hinder it. Obtaining employment and maintaining steady housing are almost ubiquitous as conditions of parole. While ideal, they can be lofty goals for offender struggling to find employment with a felony record or for those with housing restrictions.  In many states, just being on parole is expensive. In Pennsylvania, a state with one of the largest parole populations in the nation, parolees must pay up to five different types of supervision costs.  Monthly parole supervision fees, fees for drug and alcohol testing, court costs and fines, and restitution payments are all included in the standard conditions. Payment of child support can be assigned as part of special conditions. Kansas requires that parolees both retain employment within 45 days of release and begin making progress toward getting their GEDIn some states, avoiding alcohol is a standard condition of supervision, regardless of whether the parolee has substance abuse problem or if their offending behavior is related to alcohol. This often extends to places of business, with some parolees being unable to return to their jobs in food service or in other establishments that sell alcohol. In some states, such as Kansas and North Carolina, sex offenders are on lifetime supervision – meaning that they must follow conditions of supervision indefinitely.

Many note that the lack of community and agency resources, such as substance abuse treatment, transitional housing, and transportation assistance undermine offenders’ ability to re-integrate and increase the likelihood of failure.

Parole officers and Board members have wide discretion in revoking parole, thus violations such as not paying court fees or drinking alcohol do not always result in an immediate revocation. In fact, it’s not uncommon for parolees to rack up multiple “minor” violations prior to a recommitment. However, this leaves it up to the offender to determine which conditions are truly serious and which are bendable. This uncertainty and inconsistency with enforcement is unlikely to encourage most offenders to do well on parole and can be frustrating for parole officers. Robina’s research shows that while parole officers struggle with how to motivate an offender, few feel that they lack enough sanctions to get an offender into compliance. Instead, many note that the lack of community and agency resources, such as substance abuse treatment, transitional housing, and transportation assistance undermine offenders’ ability to re-integrate and increase the likelihood of failure. While there have been several advances in offender surveillance techniques (e.g., GPS monitoring, rapid results drug testing, social media monitoring), comparable advances in re-entry techniques and programs are unheard of. Even in the era of shrinking correctional budgets, policymakers are much more willing to spend money on programs aimed at improving detection rather than on ones that could prevent recidivism in the first place. Perhaps it is time to get more radical with parole supervision by refocusing surveillance resources to promote success in re-entry. After decades of failure, what do we have to lose?


  1. Some states have gotten rid of indeterminate sentencing and have replaced discretionary parole with a set time of post-release supervision, which functions in much the same way as parole supervision.

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