Parolees in Revolving Door

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Parolees in Revolving Door

Newspaper article

By: Jim H. Zamora

Date: December 23, 2002

Source: Zamora, Jim H. "Parolees in Revolving Door." San Francisco Chronicle, December 23, 2002, 〈〉 (accessed January 31, 2006).

About the Author: Jim Herron Zamora is a journalist on the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle. He is currently assigned to the Metro and Oakland Bureaus, writing on topics concerning crime and the criminal justice system, and their impact on residents and life in the East Bay region.


Although statistics vary somewhat from state to state, one of the single largest contributing factors to the ever-growing American prison population is the extraordinarily high recidivism rate. Based on the most current statistics available from the Western Prison Project, more than 700 people are in prison for each 100,000 members of the American population. That figure represents the highest rate among all of the countries in the world for which such statistics are collected. The number of incarcerated Americans has increased by more than sixty percent since 1973. In addition to the roughly two million individuals serving time in the American correctional system, there are approximately four times as many people either on probation or parole, or who have completed their sentence requirements.

A very large number of those serving time in the correctional system are repeat offenders who are back in the system as a result of parole or probation violations. As legally defined, probation is a sentencing term that allows a convicted offender to be released into the community with stipulations involving program attendance, community service, gainful employment, and generally remaining clear of the criminal justice system for a specified period of time. In brief, probation involves suspending all or part of the prison term imposed at sentencing, pending successful completion of the specified probation conditions. An individual may be given a wholly suspended sentence (serving no period of incarceration) or may be sentenced to incarceration followed by probation. Probation is usually given to individuals who are young, non-violent, first-time offenders, or otherwise likely to benefit more from rehabilitation efforts or programming than from exposure to the prison system and its inhabitants. By federal statute, the upper limit for allowable probation time is sixty months. Supervision by a probation and parole officer is always a part of the process, and can vary in level of contact and intensity of requirements. Often, both probation and parole programs involve quite frequent contacts, either by telephone or in person, with the assigned officer, as well as blood or urine drug and alcohol screens. If the offender violates the conditions of the probation in any significant way, the suspension of the sentence can be revoked, and the offender sent to prison to serve his term (after the appropriate legal actions are taken to assure that no violation of constitutional rights has occurred).

Parole is the legal term for release from prison or jail before the offender has served the full term of the sentence imposed, based on the accrual of sufficient "good time." Good time is defined as prison time served without sanctions or disciplinary actions. Its calculation is based on a very specific formula that considers the nature of the crime, length of sentence, type of conviction, level of incarceration, and various other factors, depending on location and whether the inmate is housed in a county, state, or federal jail or prison. Parole always involves the service of a term of incarceration, and the parolee is therefore considered a higher risk for the community than the probationer. Parole is typically more stringent than probation, and imposes more conditions in terms of meetings with the assigned parole officer, increased frequency of drug and alcohol screening, mandatory program participation, and extensive supervision of the entire reentry process for a prolonged period of time. Violation of parole also reactivates the initial sentencing time, but the process is somewhat different than that which applies to probation. An allegation of a probation violation sets a judicial review process in motion. If the parolee commits a significant violation of the release conditions or commits a new crime for which he is apprehended and convicted, the parolee appears before the Parole Board for consideration of revocation of the parole period and re-institution of the original sentencing requirements.

Recidivism can involve the revocation of probation or parole, conviction for a new offense while in the community, or conviction of a crime while incarcerated, necessitating an additional period of incarceration to be served at the end of the current term.


Since his first arrest at age 19, Gary Johnson has been in prison six times, mainly for drugs or minor parole violations. On the streets, he's been shot twice. Behind bars he was stabbed twice by other inmates.

But he's not a murderer, rapist or robber—just a two-bit drug offender who keeps offending and then returning home to his mom's couch.

"I don't really have any big dreams," said Johnson, 42, who began a new drug counseling program last month after parole agents spotted him hanging out on a street corner. "I'd be very happy if I could just stay outside (prison), maybe get some kind of job. I'm too old for this: It's wearing on me."

With ex-cons being blamed for helping drive up crime across California, a growing number of critics point to California's revolving-door prison policy—which does little to help nonviolent drug offenders back into society. "About half of inmates are going to reoffend and end up incarcerated no matter what you do," said Mario Paparozzi, former chairman of the New Jersey Parole Board. "The hard part of our business is what do you do with that other half." Last year, 126,000 prisoners in California were released—six times more than in 1975—and most of them had little preparation for life on the outside.

Before the mid-1970s, most sentences were indeterminate, meaning that most inmates could get off much earlier than their original sentence if they completed vocational or academic classes in addition to good behavior.

The state replaced that system with one lacking an incentive for inmates to take classes or get counseling to help them prepare for life outside prison.

Now, virtually everyone released from prison spends three years on parole. Most—about 71 percent—end up back in prison within 18 months—the nation's highest recidivism rate and nearly double the average of all other states.

But their average stay back in prison is only five months, and some experts wonder whether California is just postponing crime rather than solving it. "If you put somebody back in prison for only a few months, all you have done is postponed the inevitable return to the streets of a convict who is unprepared for society," said Paparozzi, now a criminology professor at the College of New Jersey.


The mission of the California Department of Corrections is to protect the public from criminals—not rehabilitate offenders, notes department spokeswoman Terry Thornton.

"California law dictates that the purpose of prison is punishment," she said. "We offer opportunities for those willing to change. Those willing to take responsibility for their actions are the ones who improve, and we will help them." But critics say other states, including New York and Texas, have succeeded in being tough on violent criminals while reducing recidivism among nonviolent drug offenders.

"We are trying get the violent felons into prison and use other sanctions for the nonviolent offenders," said Tom Grant, spokesman of the New York Division of Parole. "A dirty drug test would not send you back into a correctional setting in New York. It might get you into drug treatment program."


California is one of three states in which most people who enter prison each year are not new offenders but parolees who either commit new crimes or so-called technical violations of their parole terms, such as failing a drug test or missing appointments with their case agent.

"Having a zero-tolerance approach to technical violations really means you've given up on preparing these inmates for life outside prison," said Paparozzi. "With this approach, California may want to just abolish parole and keep everyone in prison for a couple more years."

In 1980, 21 percent of those entering prison were parole violators, evenly split between technical violations and new offenses. By 2000, 69 percent of those entering in prison were parolees; 57 percent for technical parole violations and 12 percent for new felony convictions.

That overall rate is about double the national average for parolees re-entering state prison. And California is the only state where most people entering prison are not there for committing new crimes.

"(We are) looking at ways to reduce the high number of parolees that return to prison for technical violations," said Nancy Lyons, deputy executive director of Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency. "California stands alone from all the other states when it comes to revocation rates." The commission plans hearings on parole reforms Jan. 23 and Feb. 27 in Sacramento.

"California made an expensive policy choice to put more people in prison instead of trying other alternatives," said Jeremy Travis of the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, who has co-authored several recent studies on recidivism and parole in California.

"The question is really whether you can afford that policy anymore…. I don't think California can afford to build more prisons in the current economic environment."

From the late 1970s to the late 1990s, California added more prison cells than any state in U.S. history. But spending on parole agents lagged, according to state data analyzed by UC Irvine Professor Joan Petersilia.

In 1997, California cut spending on parole services by 44 percent, nearly doubling parole caseloads to more than 70-to-1, according to Petersilia's 2000 report for the California Policy Research Center.

That leaves agents little time for anything but rounding up violators. Statewide, authorities have lost track of 1 in 5 parolees.

Only 5 percent of California's prisoners complete a re-entry program before they are released from prison, and fewer than a quarter of them get education or vocational training while in prison, according to Petersilia's study.

"So many people come out of prison with nothing but $200 and a head full of anger," said Ron Owens, an ex-convict who now counsels parolees. "They don't learn to be better people on the outside. They only know how to function on the inside."

Oakland has more nonprofits to help inmates and their families than any other city in California, parole officials said.

Every Wednesday, representatives from a dozen organizations make presentations to 50 newly released inmates who are required to attend.

But parole agents cannot force the ex-convicts to participate. Most show initial interest but about 90 percent fail to follow though.

Parolees, agents and counselors said inmates who go directly from highly structured and regulated life in prison back to their old neighborhoods lack the self-discipline to change.

"In prison, we are willing to beg for a job flipping pancakes for 6 cents an hour, but outside we'll never think of filling out a job application at an IHOP," said Kevin Grant, an ex-convict who oversees a re-entry program.

"Inside we know how to be good prisoners, follow the rules. But outside, we just lose it all and act like fool kids again."

Ex-convicts say it's tough to change their stripes. Gary Johnson has lost count of how many re-entry programs he has quit.

"I've wasted a lot of time in programs that didn't really help me," he said. "But I've wasted a lot more time on street corners."


During the 1990s, there was a significant change in the American system of jurisprudence regarding both sentencing and time served. Prior to that time, there was considerably more leniency in probation, parole, and even in discharged sentences (acquittal rates, dismissal of charges, etc.). The American justice system has characterized itself as being "tough on crime," meaning that first-time or non-violent offenders are more likely to be sentenced to prison terms, and repeat offenders are likely to get far longer sentences than would probably have been the case in the past (depending on the severity and nature of the offense for which the individual has been convicted). One of the concomitant problems with the system, along with recidivism, is the failure of the penal system to rehabilitate convicted felons, or render them more likely to become productive, law-abiding citizens upon release from prison than they were before serving their sentences. Very few prison systems incorporate a thorough education and recidivism reduction curriculum into their prison education programs. There are few job-training or work-release systems in effect, and few systems, whether public or privatized (prisons run by private correctional corporations) are able to budget for that type of programming. The problems created by the lack of re-entry training or recidivism reduction programs are significant contributing factors to repeat offending. Inmates have few skills and little motivation to acquire them when they leave prison; they have no training or education with which to secure reasonable (earning sufficient income to deter them from returning to their former criminal occupations), gainful employment; and they are likely to be barred from securing skilled or lucrative jobs. Since most job applications ask whether the applicant has a past felony conviction, former inmates are either forced to lie or they are unable to qualify for many higher-paying jobs.

Many of the individuals who become unsuccessful criminals (i.e., those who get arrested and convicted) are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, are poorly or minimally educated—many had learning difficulties, behavior problems, or poor school attendance as children—and are members of minority groups. The vast majority of inmates are male, nearly two-thirds of them are Black or Hispanic, and between fifty and sixty percent of them are in prison on a second or third (frequently many more than that) conviction. Slightly more than a third of all inmates incarcerated at any given time are doing time as the result of a violent offense. Depending on the area, from one-third to three-fourths of all incarcerated felons have a history of substance abuse and are in prison (or jail) for substance-related offenses (buying, selling, trafficking, or any of the related offenses, such as prostitution and weapons charges). The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that nearly seventy percent of those who have served time for a felony are rearrested for a significant crime within three years of release. The vast majority of convicted felons who serve jail or prison time have a history of multiple arrests, often starting as youthful offenders. The average number of arrests (again, this varies by age and geographic location) is between seventeen and twenty—either with or without attendant incarceration. Innmates generally are young, and the over-whelming majority are below the age of thirty-five. Older inmates are generally those who are serving long terms, and have been incarcerated for a prolonged period. It is common for incarcerated felons to refer to crime as "a young man's game" that they will either "outgrow or be killed by."



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