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The Results of A Just-Released Study of California Parolees
An Indictment of the Parole System


Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2003

In Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie's grandparents tell him that the factory has long been mysteriously closed: "Nobody ever goes in. And nobody ever comes out." Prisons, of course, are nothing like the chocolate factory: they are not sweet and they are not for children. And people go in and come out all the time. This year alone, 600,000 people will be released from prison.

Almost everyone who enters a prison will leave not long after. Even given the lengthening of sentences that occurred in the 1990s, the average prison sentence today is thirty months. Only one prisoner in ten is serving a life sentence (or awaiting execution). Next year, corrections officials predict we will reach the point of equilibrium: for every one person who enters jail or prison, another will be released.

What happens to those who are released from prison, and what happens to us as a result, is the subject of a study of California's parole system released last week. The state's Little Hoover Commission, which is designed to ensure that state government programs are cost-effective, examined how California deals with the over 100,000 men and women its prisons release into the community every year. The conclusion: "California's parole system is a billion-dollar failure."

The California Experience

California's experience with released prisoners is considerably worse than the national average. In most states, about a third of all people on parole return to prison before they complete parole; in California, the number is two thirds. While many of these returns are for technical violations of the conditions of parole, many are also for commission of new crimes. The failure of the parole system, therefore, is a direct threat to the safety of the persons and property of Californians.

All states' systems for reintegrating convicts into the community have been shaped by two forces: the economic reality of budget deficits and the political need to appear tough on criminals. Prisoners are a universally unloved constituency, so it is unsurprising that when money is tight, services for prisoners are among the first to go.

Indifference to a prisoner's life on the outside begins during his sentence. Most states have dramatically reduced the job training, academic courses, and abuse counseling available on the inside. Many prisons increasingly treat their inmate populations as a workforce, but these are often low-skill jobs that generate revenue for the state but prepare the inmates for nothing.

The problem intensifies when prisoners are released. In California, the Little Hoover Commission found that the state does little to help prisoners find jobs, housing, and recovery programs. A parolee's getting a job and a place to live and getting off drugs are - along with strong family ties - the best way to reduce the chances the parolee will re-offend. By not devoting resources to these issues, we put our communities at risk.

Worse, most states impose significant disabilities on released convicts, especially felons. Some of these make excellent sense, like the laws prohibiting felons from owning weapons. Some are just political slogans, like the laws preventing ex-cons from voting.

But many of these disabilities have serious consequences. California and many other states, for example, limit a felon's access to public housing; in many states, former drug offenders are flatly forbidden in public housing. The same is often true for welfare benefits.

Many states also refuse licenses to felons for an incredible variety of jobs -- it is almost impossible to work as a barber with a felony conviction, which is particularly ironic given the former prevalence of barber training in prisons.

Countless other programs for the needy, involving drug and alcohol counseling, job training, and other services, are unavailable to parolees. As a consequence, the very citizens who most need the assistance of the state are often those least likely to get it.

The Primary Reason to Help Parolees: Public Safety

Readers may ask: What, exactly, is wrong with all of this? Prison, after all, is where you go to be punished, not trained or educated, and if you're so concerned about those things, well, that's a good reason not to commit crimes in the first place. Cutting programs inside prison, and reducing the opportunities for ex-cons on the outside, all seem of a piece with our current view of what we ought to do with the convicted. The problem is that these policies have dire consequences for the rest of us.

Granted, no one really thinks that the lack of a GED program in a prison, or the inability to vote upon release, deters anyone from committing a crime. Most criminals don't think past tomorrow, and most don't think they'll be caught.

But these deprivations do have real harms, and their only plausible rationale -- to punish prisoners even more -- is flawed. Indeed, it is downright cavalier with respect to the first order of business for the criminal justice system - our safety.

When a criminal is convicted, a court will frequently impose a sentence, a period of supervised release, or both. When these come to end, the punishment ends, too. Historically, we have crafted a few exceptions - being a felon is a pretty good reason for taking away someone's gun license. But that exception is aimed squarely at the safety of the community. It has little meaningful effect on the ex-con's ability to reintegrate himself into society.

Not so the ban on, say, felons living in public housing. A ban on guns applies no matter where a felon goes, so its result should be a net increase in safety. But the ban on felons in public housing is meaningless, because the felon will live among us, somewhere - in private housing or on the street, if not in the projects.

Not only do bans like these fail to enhance our safety - they actually diminish it. Securing a place to live, again, is one of the handful of things most commonly associated with returning to a law-abiding life. If prisoners can't find a place to live (and their customary poverty frequently means public housing is the only hope) or find a job or get help with addictions, we have materially increased the likelihood that they will rob or assault again.

Indeed, all of these disabilities do more than reduce the chances that a former inmate will successfully reintegrate into society. They create a second class citizenry, living among us but largely unable to participate in civic life.

Such people cannot possibly have the same stake in decency and good order as the rest of us. And such alienation is and always has been a grave threat to society. We are liable to pay a great price for such a concerted elevation of punishment over the goal of public safety.

Barton Aronson is an attorney in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, he was a prosecutor in Washington, D.C., and an Assistant District Attorney in Massachusetts. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

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