Here’s an excellent Q&A, really a must read, with UC Berkeley Law Professor Jonathan Simon, an expert on parole policy. Using the killing of four Oakland police officers by Lovelle Mixon, who was on parole at the time, Simon sets aside the myths about parole and looks at the hard facts – that this is an unbelievably broken system, particularly in California, one that really cannot fulfill the mission set out for it 100 years ago. Parole was something of an employment agency upon its inception, supervising ex-convicts at their workplace and letting them go on with their lives. In today’s environment of social Darwinism, ex-cons are sent back onto the streets with no money and no skills to get a job, and so they devolve into homelessness or drug abuse, making it nearly impossible for parole officers to even find parolees, let alone keep them out of trouble.
It really can’t work – which you’ll see if you look at the category of parolees who are simply of unknown whereabouts. These parolees are described as PAL, for “parolee at large,” in official California statistics.
Statewide, 14.6 percent of all parolees were PAL in 2005; in large cities like Oakland and Los Angeles it’s probably closer to 25 percent. This sounds alarming, although authorities have little basis for knowing the status of these people. Is the parolee-at-large wandering around homeless and has he forgotten to come in for an appointment, or to take his medications if he or she is on psychiatric treatment? Or, as with Lovelle Mixon, has the person gone back to doing some very serious crimes and is he evading detection? We’re fooling ourselves if we think that this century-old method of surveilling people in the community, through periodic contacts, can work with a population as isolated and marginalized as the one upon which we now focus our penal attention.
Simon theorizes that California’s parole system works even worse than most states because we eliminated early release through parole, but maintained the strict supervision requirements that invariably send parolees back to prison:
But unlike many other states that also eliminated early release through parole, California continued to require parole supervision in the community for all released prisoners. And that, I think, is a big part of what’s broken. People are sent to California prisons for a determinate amount of time, based upon the seriousness of their crime. After they’ve served this sentence, it’s neither justified nor effective to add up to three years of parole supervision for each and every ex-offender – without making any distinction between those whose criminal record or psychological profile suggest they’ll commit a crime that will harm the community, and those who pose no such threat.
So the parole system has little real capacity to monitor and protect us from those who pose a danger of committing serious new crimes. And it exposes ex-offenders – many of whom pose little threat of committing such crimes – to the likelihood of being sent back to prison. (This is a really big problem, when you think of our prison overcrowding and our budget crisis).
Parolees are required to consent to searches of their person and property. If officers stop a car in Oakland, and somebody in that car is on parole, police have a lot of leeway to disregard normal constitutional limits on search-and-seizure authority. They can use any evidence collected in this situation against the parolee – and also, of course, can attempt to use the coercion of plea bargaining to get evidence against other people in the car.
In recent years, as many as 70 percent of those on parole in California have been sent back to prison – only a small percentage of whom have committed a new crime (14 percent in 2007); more than half were sent back for what are called “technical” parole violations. These parolees are “returned to custody” by the Board of Prison Terms, very often for conduct that would not earn them (or other California citizens) prison time in a court. Turning in a positive drug test is an example; even missing an appointment with parole staff can result in re-imprisonment.
By the way, no other state has the recidivism rate of California, and certainly no other state sends as many people back to prison for technical violations of their parole appointments. And due to the three-strikes law as well as increased sentences over 30 years, we have more Californians in prison on life sentences – about thirty thousand – as there were TOTAL PRISONERS in 1977. The parole board is theoretically supposed to monitor the “lifers” and let out those who served their mandatory minimums and can be reasonably seen as representing no risk to the community, but in reality we let out something like 5 per year. Meanwhile more life sentences are given to thousands of prisoners every year, and the problem simply grows.
Even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s supposedly bold plan to release all undocumented immigrants from prison and deport them – something he hasn’t bothered to run by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm of the federal government – has so many strings on what type of prisoners should be allowed to go free (one felony conviction, nonviolent and nonsexual crime, etc.) that only 1,400 out of 18,000 would qualify.
Tough on crime policies have very simply destroyed California, leaving every lawmaker looking over his or her shoulder trying to be crueler toward criminals than their opponents. In the end, we all suffer, as scarce resources get taken up by a prison-industrial complex that is the fastest-growing sector of the state budget. These policies have been discredited, and other states have proven that you can maintain the peace and provide for public safety while not stuffing prisons with a seemingly endless amount of criminals. We can bring the idea of corrections, and rehabilitation, back to the corrections process, if we only shake off the fear that practically every politician exudes when promoting these terrible policies.