Social Justice Matters: Justice On Parole

Parole is a concept with which many people are undoubtedly familiar. In the justice system in this country, people sent to prison are often eligible for parole after fulfilling at least a percentage of their sentences. Under parole, prisoners are released back into society, subject to certain restrictions, and they are monitored after release. There are a number of arguments in favour of parole. It reduces prison crowding, for one thing, and it is also believed to help reduce recidivism.

What may surprise some people to learn is that parole is a far from simple matter in the United States, and like other aspects of the justice system and the prison system, it is particularly rife with problems associated with the class and racial disparities in the United States. Understanding the problems that underlie parole is important for anyone who wants to explore parole reform, whether one is lobbying to abolish parole, as some victim advocacy groups are, or to increase opportunities for parole, as some prisoner rights organisations are.

The first thing to know about parole is that it is not open to everyone. Laws vary state by state, but the thumbnail version is that for certain crimes, parole will not be considered as an option. In some states, parole is not offered at all, period, end of discussion, no matter why a person is in prison.

Furthermore, parole is dependent on prisoner behaviour, which is where we start to get into the social justice implications of the way the parole system is structured. The treatment of prisoners is not equal. White, middle class prisoners are more likely to be kept in facilities where the conditions are not dangerous and they are not forced to defend themselves. Nonwhite prisoners who come from poor backgrounds are more commonly incarcerated in dangerous facilities where they not only need to defend themselves, but may be disciplined by guards for activities that couldn’t fairly be considered behavioural problems. Especially since white prisoners get away with the same behaviour without being penalised for it.

The racial disparities in criminal investigation, prosecution, and sentencing mean that more nonwhite people are likely to end up in prison in the first place, and that they are more likely to be imprisoned for violent crimes. Furthermore, they are more likely to be in jail when they shouldn’t be; false conviction rates are higher for nonwhite folks, and, of course, disparities in sentencing mean that nonwhite prisoners are more likely to receive harsher sentences. A crime for which a white person may be released on probation is one for which a nonwhite person will be receiving a prison sentence.

Already, before they even get into prison, many prisoners are at a disadvantage. The disparities in prison perpetuate that disadvantage.

And parole isn’t offered automatically. People need to petition for it. Guess what you need to petition for parole?

You need a lawyer.

A good lawyer. A lawyer who is familiar not just with the criminal justice system, but with the parole procedure. A lawyer who can put together a case good enough to get a prisoner a parole hearing. Who can muster supporting evidence including professional testimony at the hearing, indications that the prisoner will have community support upon release. Parole hearings are not automatic offers of parole. They are the first step.

And one of the many things that the parole board considers is whether or not a prisoner has a job offer. A stable residence. Means of support. If these things are not present, no matter how flawless a prisoner’s behaviour record is, no matter how good a prisoner’s lawyer and the supporting evidence is, parole will not be granted. This means that when minority prisoners do access high quality legal support through legal aid and volunteer programs, they may still not be paroled because they lack the social status and privilege to demonstrate that they will ‘behave’ after release.

Parole is tremendously racialised and it is heavily split along class boundaries. The whiter you are and the more money you have, the less likely you are to end up in prison in the first place. If you do happen to end up in prison, the more likely you are to have access to a good lawyer who will ensure that you not only get a parole hearing, but that the hearing goes well. And the more likely you are to have the support network that the parole board is looking for in the hearing to decide whether or not you should be released.

Addressing disparities in the prison system is a multifaceted issue. Some of these problems are not going to go away until we see a radical shift in society itself; until, for example, nonwhite people are not automatically assumed to be violent criminals. But disparities in parole hearings are a real, concrete issue that a lot of people are working on, from legal groups that provide representation to community-based organisations that provide housing and job placement for parolees, including placement for people in difficult situations such as paroled sex offenders who face restrictions on where they can live and work.

I would prefer to live in a world where imprisonment is rare and the people in prison genuinely committed the crimes they are being imprisoned for. But until that happens, I think it’s important to try and address the disparities in the system at the same time. To benefit the people who are suffering under the current system while attempting to prevent future suffering. And the gross unfairness of the current parole system is a very serious problem.