Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness started a very important conversation about our use of laws to oppress people of color. The response has been mixed: on one hand, states see a way to reduce overcrowded prisons and save taxpayer's money. On the other hand, lawmakers and law enforcers also caution about public safety. If we're going to release tens of thousands of inmates to save on prison space, shouldn't we be very careful about who we let out?
Two efforts are underway that will eventually give us what we want: fewer people incarcerated and better ways to determine who among the violent in prison gets released.
In a recent report "Accounting for Violence: How to Increase Safety and Reduce our Failed Reliance on Incarceration," author Danielle Sered said, We've ended up with a country that is very rich in punishment and very poor in accountability." Click here for the report, published by the Vera Institute for Justice.
Sered, director of Common Justice, talks about the success of community restorative justice programs to satisfy the needs of the community (for accountability from the offender, or "person responsible") while also satisfying the needs of the victim (or "survivor"). When victims had the choice between their assailant in prison or being sent instead through the restorative justice program, NINETY PERCENT chose the restorative justice model. Why? Because in that system, victims are a participant, not just a bystander. And, the offender is given a chance to atone and make amends, not just get locked away without ever having to face the victim directly.
Once people are in prison for violent crimes, they can serve determinate (fixed release date) or indeterminate (flexible release date) sentences. Parole boards get involved in the latter sentences. They review an inmate's behavior after a certain period of incarceration to see if there is sufficient good behavior to warrant early release. The problem with determinate , or mandated, sentences is that there's no incentive for the inmate to be a model citizen in prison. They get out on the court-decided release date, regardless of their behavior. And why put people in prison at all if it's only to warehouse them, if there's no incentive to change?
The problem at the other end - indeterminate sentences - is, once inmates are in, the state parole board can arbitrarily decide to delay the date of release indefinitely. In most states, they have a lot of power and very little accountability. Someone can get "flopped" indefinitely because the board (which changes personnel frequently) isn't convinced the inmate will be law abiding. A national organization called the Marshall Project has reported on a lengthy investigation into the nature of, and the failure of, parole boards. The article is called: When Parole Boards Trump the Supreme Court, by Beth Schwartzapfel. Click here for the full article.
A quote from the article said, "In New Hampshire, 'lack of a financial safety net or a safe place to live' is the most common reason an otherwise eligible inmate would be denied parole, regardless of whether it is believed the inmate might offend again." Hundreds of inmates are serving sentences of 20 and 30 years, when their release date was 10 or fewer.
A recent analysis by the University of Minnesota law school found that parole release rates in many states remain stuck under 10%, even as the country searches for solutions to mass incarceration. In Ohio, 7% of hearings result in parole being granted. In Florida, the 2014 grant rate was 2%.
“No meaningful opportunity [to prove rehabilitation] can be granted where the only consideration at a parole hearing is the severity of the offense,” wrote attorneys for Blair Greiman, sentenced as a teenager in Iowa to life without parole for kidnapping and rape.
"At 16, high on horse tranquilizers he had stolen from the veterinary supply at his family’s farm, Greiman raped a woman, stabbed her, and left her for dead. Now 50, Greiman says he has a “simple desire to live a decent life and not be defined by the worst act of my life.” In prison, he has earned a degree, become a master woodworker, participated in counseling and treatment and published a novel, the lawsuit says. Yet, repeatedly denied parole because of the seriousness of his crime, Greiman “is effectively placed in the same situation as he was previously—a juvenile offender serving life sentences without eligibility for parole,” his lawyers argue.