Trapped by the System: Parole in America

On a rainy afternoon late last year, 47-year-old Joseph Bostic stepped off a Greyhound bus -- homeless, jobless, and $37 shy of penniless -- into New York's bustling Port Authority station. Bostic was returning to Brooklyn after finishing his second term in the New York state prison system. From 1983 to 1990, Bostic had served out his first prison term for a manslaughter conviction. After seven years he had been let out on parole, but knew that if he violated his parole conditions he'd go back to jail. So he did his best to stay clean.

He did a pretty good job, too, except for one small crime that society wouldn't normally take too seriously -- in 1997, Bostic overdrew his checking account by $341. And for that, he spent three years in prison.

Statistics describing prison populations and crime in America reveal a paradox. Though crime rates are falling, the prison population is still growing. Why are more people going to prison than are committing crime?

In cases like that of Joseph Bostic, an explanation can be found in the dysfunctional institution of parole. An August 2000 Department of Justice (DOJ) study revealed that from 1990 to 1998, there was a 54 percent increase in the number of parole violators returning to prison. Of the 423,000 paroles that came to a conclusion in 1998, 42 percent ended up with the parolee going back to prison. In some states those percentages are much higher; in California, nearly 70 percent of the people entering prison last year were back because they violated their parole.

Some of these repeat offenders, to be sure, have committed serious crimes. But some of them, including many who are trying to go straight, are faced with parole conditions that are so strict that even things like chronic unemployment can be considered just cause for reincarceration. At the same time, services to help parolees reenter society are scarce, and laws protecting ex-offenders from housing and employment discrimination are virtually non-existent. To make matters worse, when parolees are convicted of even the pettiest crimes -- like Bostic was -- due process is legally suspended and often violated in order to reincarcerate them.

"Parole sets people up for failure," American Probation and Parole Association president Carl Wicklund says. Wicklund calls the current approach to supervising ex-offenders "tail-em, nail-em, jail-em." He scoffs at the idea that most parole supervision methods are "tests" to see if ex-offenders can make it in the outside world, saying the term is too mild.

"I would call them an obstacle course," he says.


Parole is the period of law enforcement supervision that typically follows release from prison. For a prisoner who has served the minimum term of his sentence, it's an alternative to further incarceration.

Before a prisoner is granted parole, a parole board reviews his case to determine whether he is ready to be released. If the board judges that he is, it gives him a release plan, which prescribes the conditions of his parole. Release plans frequently include conditions like abstinence from drugs and contact with other ex-offenders, retention of gainful employment, and periodic reporting to a parole officer. If a parolee violates any of these conditions, or is charged with committing a new crime, he is subject to reincarceration.

After his first term in prison, Bostic's parole conditions required him to meet bi-weekly, then monthly with the parole officer assigned him by the parole division and to report all instances of police contact to him. During their meetings, the parole officer filled out a report detailing any problems Bostic reported having, any instances of police contact, and any change of address.

Bostic's parole officer was fairly easy-going, Bostic said. Others are much more stringent. Some make unannounced visits to parolees homes, which are allowed by law, and patrol the neighborhoods where parolees live, trying to catch them violating a parole condition or committing a new crime. Some parolees who have curfews report that they receive check-up calls and drop-by visits from their parole officers ten-minutes after their curfews.

"Parole officers have plenty of incentives to reincarcerate parolees," University of Miami law professor Jonathon Simon explains. When states abandoned their efforts to rehabilitate prisoners in favor of retribution and public safety, the power to re-imprison parolees shifted from parole boards to parole officers, Simon says. "Officers became first lines of defense against crime rather than case managers, or social services brokers," he says. "To keep their jobs, parole officers have to catch and confine the bad guys. They usually choose to do that at the first sign of relapse."


With parole officers looking to nab them again, parolees are already facing poor odds. Add to that the difficulty of adjusting to life "on the outside," especially after long prison terms, and it becomes obvious that ex-offenders need more help than they're getting.

The trend, unfortunately, has been to cut back such support services. Government funding for pre-release programs has always been inadequate, and both prison rehabilitation programs and social services for parolees were slashed during the '80s. Even the state of Washington, which has one of the best pre-release programs in the country, only treats 30-40 percent of all prisoners released.

Before Joseph Bostic was released, for example, the Department of Correctional Services did little to get him re-adjusted to society, beside help him put together a resume and prepare for job interviews. As he points out, "To someone who doesn't have food or a place to stay, a resume in a cruel job market doesn't seem like a much of a ticket."

Furthermore, only a handful of states have laws that protect ex-offenders from housing and employment discrimination. That means that most landlords and employers are allowed to ask applicants if they've ever been convicted of a crime and discriminate against them if the answer is yes. Even the federal government restricts ex-offender's access to low income public housing.

These circumstances all contribute to our strikingly high reincarceration rates. To brings those rates down, instead of beefing up anti-discrimination laws or funding social services, during the 80s state governments tried hiring more parole officers and enforcing stricter terms. With more officers, the theory went, parole boards can give more individual attention and help to each parolee.

But, not surprisingly, the more individual attention is paid to a parolee, the more likely he is to be caught violating his terms of parole. A 1996 RAND study of 14 jurisdictions that had implemented more intensive supervision programs (ISP) found that 65 percent of ISP parolees were charged with violating some parole condition during the previous 5 years. In comparison, only 38 percent of routinely supervised participants were similarly charged.

The study also found that 37 percent of the ISP parolees had been rearrested and charged with committing a new crime, in comparison to only 33 percent of the routinely supervised offenders.


Once accused of violating parole, ex-offenders stand a very small chance of being exonerated: The federal government only requires states to grant parolees a subset of the full due process of law.

"Almost none of the procedural rules that must be observed during any other criminal proceeding apply to parole revocation hearings," New York Attorney Steven Sanders says. Even in states whose standards are higher than federal standards, the handful of safeguards that do exist are frequently ignored, says Sanders, a 20-year veteran in this area of law who works for the Legal Aid Society's Parole Revocation Defense Unit.

Joseph Bostic's case provides a striking example of how limited due process can be in parole revocation cases. When Bostic pled guilty to overdrawing his checking account, he was living in Georgia, working for a successful construction business. Because he was on parole from New York, where he had committed his original crime, New York began the process of extraditing him to serve the rest of his original manslaughter term -- eight years. Due to red tape and bureaucracy, Bostic sat in the Glynn County, Georgia jail for four months, waiting to be transferred up north, without even having been charged with a parole violation.

"I lost my job and my ties to my family, defaulted on loans and ruined my credit while I sat in jail just waiting," he says.

Bostic was finally shipped to Rikers Island, New York, where he was held in waiting for six more months. Finally, the New York parole division held his parole revocation hearing and sentenced him, at first, to 15 months at Walkill state prison. When the parole board conducted its review of his case, it modified his sentence to 8 years, reasoning that 15 months was too lenient.

Unlike in other criminal proceedings, the federal government does not require states to provide indigent parolees attorneys during their revocation hearings. Parolees don't even have the right to call witnesses or exclude hearsay testimony from their hearings. Court transcripts show that at Bostic's hearing, the parole specialist claimed that Bostic's former girlfriend had accused Bostic of making threatening phone calls to her. There was no proof that Bostic had made any such calls, but the parole specialists testimony was still allowed into the hearing.

To make matters worse, parole departments are commonly exempted from judicial review, Attorney Sanders says. "Parole revocation hearings are closed proceedings in which checks and balances are virtually non-existent," he says. New York courts, Sanders notes, have denied several recent high-profile requests from parolees who wanted their cases reviewed by someone less partial than the parole division. The New York courts told these parolees to appeal to the parole division itself.

Advocates Fear a New Clinton Initiative

Following the August, 2000 DOJ study about parolee recidivism and prison growth, President Clinton released a statement calling for "a new public safety initiative aimed at providing greater supervision for offenders reentering the community." The statement announced that the fiscal year 2001 budget appropriates $145 million for the development and support of "innovative reentry programs that promote responsibility and help keep ex-offenders on track and crime- and drug-free."

The initiative, called Project Reentry, would allot $60 million to fund the development of "reentry partnerships" and "reentry courts" designed to prevent parolees from backsliding like Bostic did. The money would also allow parole divisions to hire more officers and increase their officer-parolee ratio.

But Dr. James Austin, who has studied prisoner reentry extensively for the Institute on Crime, Justice, and Corrections at George Washington University, is skeptical that Clinton's budget initiative would produce results if adopted by Congress. "Compared to the $30-40 billion spent annually on adult corrections, $145 million is nothing," Austin says.

Still others, like prison activist Dianne Williams, fear that Clinton's call for "a new public safety initiative" will result in even stricter parole supervision. "If the states who participate in the program use the money to pick up more parole violators, I think there will be issues," she says.

Williams, who is President of the Safer Foundation, a Chicago-based group that provides job-training for ex-offenders, does give Clinton credit for trying to address parolee issues. "Parole officers caseload is too high and I believe there needs to be a partnership between us and parole officers," Williams says. But, she adds, "I will always believe that social services are the best place to put the dollars."

Indeed, $75 million of Clinton's Project Reentry would fund Department of Labor job-training initiatives. And $10 million would fund Department of Health and Human Services substance abuse and mental health treatment for ex-offenders. This is the portion of the initiative that excites Williams, since private donations cover only 5 percent of Safer Foundation's budget.

"It is difficult to get funding for re-entry projects," Williams says, "It is not a popular cause -- not children, not battered women, not the arts. It's just not hot."

Other community organizations like the Parolee Rights Project, recently started by the non-profit where Joseph Bostic now works, are less enthusiastic about what Project Reentry will mean. The Parolee Rights Project is soliciting complaints about unfair parole supervisory practices to prove that there are systemic abuses that might be corrected through litigation. "We want to educate prisoners about how to navigate the system when they come up for parole," executive director Jennifer Flynn says.

"We have plenty of parole officers," Bostic says, regarding Clinton's initiative. "More job related programs, educational programs, and access to low income housing are what we need, but this initiative won't make a dent in those issues," he says. "$145 million is barely enough to pay the salaries of the bureaucrats who will run the programs."

Take Action! Contact the Parolee Rights Project at 212-260-2512 to find out how you can help.


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