The Dui Hua regularly reports on sentence reductions and early releases for prisoners in China. In the United States, these types of sentence modifications fall under the broad category of parole. There are currently about 800,000 Americans released on parole in communities across the country. How does this system work, and how is it that this population has become so large?

Today, parole may refer to both early conditional release from prison and the supervised period that follows that release. Both of these elements were part of the traditional parole system that first gained popularity in the United States over a century ago. At that time, the idea of prison as a place of punishment was being replaced by the concept of prison as a place of reform. According to this model, a judge’s sentence at trial was provisional, or indeterminate, and reflected a range from a minimum to maximum sentence. The amount of time a prisoner actually served reflected his or her willingness to reform.

At periodic hearings, a parole board would evaluate a prisoner’s past actions, behavior in prison, expressions of remorse, and plans for the future. If the board was satisfied with the inmate’s improvement, it could parole the inmate back into the community to serve out the remainder of his sentence. (The term “parole” comes from the French, where parole means “word,” since a prisoner who had reformed would “give his word” that he would abide by the law if released early.) But parolees were required to do more than just obey the law; additional requirements might include maintaining gainful employment, abstaining from drugs and alcohol, and visiting a parole officer regularly. If these conditions weren’t met, a parole officer could revoke parole, sending the parolee back to prison to serve out the remainder of a sentence.

Parole in US History

New York became the first state to adopt a comprehensive parole system in 1907. By 1942, all states and the federal government had adopted parole systems. Release through parole steadily increased after that, reaching a high in 1977, when 72 percent of prisoners were released early on parole. This trend began to draw national attention—especially after a number of high-profile crimes were committed by paroled felons—and a growing chorus of voices across the country began to raise doubts about the effectiveness of parole.

Critics charged that indeterminate sentencing granted too much authority to the judiciary branch (sentencing judges) and the executive branch (appointed parole boards), and shortchanged the legislative branch, which had written the laws being enforced. State legislatures began to pass determinate sentencing laws, which curtailed judicial discretion and established fixed, mandatory sentences for crimes. Many states also reduced the power of parole boards and established objective criteria, such as point systems, for granting early releases. At the same time, the role of the parole officer in many states began to shift from one of community social worker to that of enforcement agent.

The The US Congress became fed up with the federal parole system—Democrats were concerned with racial bias in parole board decisions, and Republicans felt too many prisoners were receiving parole—and passed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which did away with parole in federal prisons. It was replaced by the current point system, whereby prisoners who meet certain educational goals and disciplinary standards can earn “good time” and reduce their sentences by up to 54 days per year. Reductions are calculated using an established formula that ensures uniformity across all federal prisons. Insofar as these reductions are applied, or vested, on a yearly basis, the US federal system closely resembles the Chinese system, in which inmates receive periodic sentence reductions.

As a result of this trend towards parole release standardization and “truth in sentencing,” one feature of the traditional US parole system—the parole board—has declined in use; at the same time, another feature, post-release supervision, has actually become more common. About 80 percent of prisoners are placed on some sort of post-release supervision. The net effect is that a larger share of prisoners now serve fixed, determinate sentences followed by a period of monitoring in the community. However, this trend masks enormous variation in policy between states. In 2007, for example, Maine had a mere 31 parolees, while California was home to over 118,000 parolees, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

California: Leader, Exception in Parole

As is often the case in discussions of state prison policy, California deserves special mention. The state’s prison population is so big, and its parole policy so extreme, that the parole system in California has a dramatic effect on nationwide statistics. Since 1977, when California became the second state to scrap discretionary parole and institute a determinate sentencing system (a year after Maine), prisoners sentenced in California receive a determinate sentence, which means that while these prisoners can still earn “good time” much like in the federal system, they will never go before a parole board.

In California, only 5 percent of prisoners sentenced under the old system—known as “lifers,” those who received an indeterminate sentence up to life imprisonment—still go before a parole board. But the outlook for such prisoners has changed drastically. Many were sentenced at a time when most indeterminate sentences eventually resulted in parole. But the California parole board has become far more conservative, and now grants parole in less than one percent of the cases it hears every year. So for most lifers, an indeterminate sentence has become a life sentence. California also requires post-correctional supervision for all prisoners. This, combined with perhaps the strictest revocation policy of any state, means that while, on average, states returned 17 percent of parolees to prison in 2006, California returned 28 percent; no state revoked at a higher rate.

The traditional parole model, in which an inmate’s suitability for early re-entry into the community was based on the parole board’s personal judgments about an inmate’s past actions, current level of remorse, and possible future in society, was subjective at best. California’s current system, which—as with many other states’—has abandoned any pretense of assessing an inmate’s suitability for community re-entry, is certainly more objective. But with this new model, California also seems to have given up on the idea that a parole system—with its incentives for good behavior, stated bonds of trust between parole agent and parolee, and re-entry assistance—can actually have an influence on the life and behavior of prisoners.

There are signs, however, that the tide may be again turning. The hands-off, one-size-fits-all model of parole in states like California does little to reduce recidivism or make communities safer. Many experts are now calling for new parole systems that retain some of the best elements of traditional parole—like incentives for good behavior and community reintegration—while reforming the parts that drew the most ire, such as subjective parole boards. Whether states will embrace these new ideas remains an open question.

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