Parole Violations Revolving Door
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Probation & Parole: The Fix for a Costly Justice System?

In a political climate of tight budgets and steadily climbing costs, attention has turned to the prison system as an easy way to cut expenditures. This only makes sense, as according to one estimate by the Vera Institute of Justice in 2010, the average inmate cost was $87 a day back then. Many think parole and probation are two keys to success.

Two probation officers standing in front of the door of an offender's house.
Probation officers at the door of an offender’s house.
Image Source: NCDPS

Probation VS Parole: Lowering the Costs of Housing Prison Inmates

Logically, the best way to lower the costs of housing inmates is to lower the amount of people sent to prisons. That is precisely the goal of probation and parole, say experts.

What is probation? This is a sentence which keeps offenders from entering the prison system to begin with.

What is parole? This converts an inmate’s sentence to time outside of prison.

So, the solution is simple, right? All we need to do is give more offenders probation sentences and let more inmates out on parole. Easy right?!

The government pays less, and offenders won’t have to be shut off from society with no chance to reengage. Everybody wins!

It’s Just Not That Simple

Unfortunately, the issue is more complicated than that. While probation and parole cost significantly less than incarceration, a 2005 report compiled by the PEW Center for the States found that parole violators accounted for over one-third of all prison admissions.

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So even if it costs less, in the long run, offenders still end up back in prisons.

Some might claim that these offenders weren’t ready for parole or probation to begin with… that if you offend once you are more likely to offend again. The facts, however, indicate something different.

Just Paroled Greeting Card by Uncle Pokey
Just Paroled Greeting Card by Uncle Pokey

The Facts About Parole Violations

Less than half of parolees are incarcerated for a new crime. Most are sent to prison for violations of their parole terms. Violations can be:

  • Inaccurately or incompletely filling out a form
  • Failing to show up for one of the scheduled parole meetings
  • Being unable to pay supervision fees
  • Lacking success finding gainful employment
  • Not securing stable residence

What is an illiterate person supposed to do? What about someone who hasn’t had access to the proper education to secure a job? How is someone supposed to pay supervision fees if they can’t afford to support themselves or their family?

This is all not to mention how incredibly difficult it can be to find a job as a convicted felon. That check box on most applications which asks about convictions can be easy to miss on an application for those of us with a clean record.

But for those who have been convicted of crimes, it can be the deciding factor on a yes or no. And if they do make it to the interviewing stage, then they can be certain their potential employer will ask them details about what happened.

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If they do manage to get employment, however, that doesn’t change the frequency of their visits to their parole officer. I want to note that parole officers aren’t necessarily the bad guys in this scenario.

From the parole officer’s perspective, they are grossly overworked and underpaid. Parole officers often have several people they supervise. And like many in the justice system, they can become burnt out and cynical after all the missed meetings and violations.

The result is that POs often cannot and will not adjust their scheduled meetings with parolees. So, either the parolee must:

  1. Either… Find a way to get out of work to come see the PO and risk losing their job
  2. Or… they must stay at work and risk losing their freedom to the justice system

Keep in mind that one of the requirements of their continued time outside of prison is holding onto a steady job. It’s these types of prison Catch 22 situations that make it very difficult for parolees to successfully finish parole.

Weaknesses in the Justice System: Probation & Parole

The greatest weakness of the criminal justice system is its lack of support for recovery and reintegration into society. And the way we treat offenders who are put on probation or inmates released from prisons on parole is a clear reflection of that weakness.

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Fortunately, there are those who are trying to fix the problem.

Parole Violations Revolving Door
An illustration depicting the result of parole violations.
Image Source: Berkeley

HOPE: Hawaii Implements New & Improved Probation System

Hawaii has integrated HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement). This new system preferences immediate responses to violations, with shorter prison times of several days or less for employed individuals.

It also offers strong outreach and support for those within the parole system, including drug abuse rehabilitation and assistance finding employment.

So far, Hawaii’s new HOPE probation system has been a success. It may serve as a model for how the parole and probation systems can begin to be fixed in the future.

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N. L. Sweeney is an English Creative Writing graduate from Western Washington University. His work has been published by Flash Fiction Magazine, Niteblade, Defenestration Magazine, Jeopardy Magazine and Inroads: Writers in the Community. He currently writes editorials and feature news pieces for Prison Rideshare Network. When Sweeney’s not writing, he busies himself with petting furry animals, learning Chinese and making friends in local tea shops.