A Conservative Approach to Parole Reform
Updated: Oct 25
Parole in the United States is an enormous network of nearly 4.5 million people. The definition is a conditional release of prisoners. The federal system was done away within the early nineties for granting Parole. Some states have done away with parole boards all together in favor of determinate sentencing. The parole board evaluates whether prisoners are ready to be released. The decision by the committees on whether to release prisoners is an area that should be looked at again by critics. In 2011 Dominic Cinelli was released by the six members of the Massachusetts parole board and after he served part of multiple life sentences. After being released Cincelli robbed a Kohl’s on Christmas eve and killed a 60 year old police officer during the chase. The far-reaching consequences of one mistake by the Board make them immeasurably crucial to community safety. However, the millions of people on Parole are not free and subject to limitations of the criminal justice system, including otherwise unconstitutional searches and seizures. Requiring proof an inmate would not commit harm after release is an adequate protection that the Parole board should seek to employ before making their decision. 40% of parolees do not complete their conditions of release.
The system now has different review criteria for each state. The common theme is violent offenders must wait the longest before their release even though they may be model prisoners. Often judges make deals for the potential of Parole after a specific date. In New York, there is a reason for denial, but some convicts have simply gotten the feeling they are not being heard. In New Jersey, courts parole boards make recommendations on mental wellbeing or fitness and the need for a halfway house as treatment. In Trantino v. New Jersey, a man was released to a halfway house, and the Court ordered the Board to reconsider release after harmful letters showed up threatening Trantino’s life if he was released. Boards are responsible for enacting a large network of halfway houses or rehabilitation programs as prongs of conditional release. The prevailing success of the Board is based on an evaluation that is none too rooted in science or often clear criteria. Why would one person get Parole and not another? The intent of a prisoner may be unclear, and it is hardly an easy job determining whether actual rehabilitation took place.
The Governor appoints the Board in 44 states. The good-willed applicants are looked over in favor of older prisoners who served most of their sentences. The reality is sentencing minimums do not guarantee Parole, but the penalties can extend another few years once going through Parole has begun. Cases that have gone to court over the Parole Board walking back decisions after being rebuked or forced to resign by the Governor in several 2nd circuit cases.  So far, there is no federal standard for who can be on the parole board. Membership is often newcomers to the criminal justice system. The most stringent recommendation is that the Board has a bachelor’s degree. In New York, the parole board is designated as an independent body and instructed to interpret statutes when making decisions. The best behaving applicants behind bars do not get released because of previous history or violent charges. New York and other states use any number of factors to quantify their decision under their power of discretion. Other states do not want to undermine the severity of the crime. The decision to give freedom should be simple.
The bureaucratic Parole Board is too big to function efficiently. Once appointed, parole commissioners serve six years in New York.
A bureaucracy trend follows suit in several states where interpreting statute and appointment are part of the parole board. Illinois statute states that a prisoner will not be eligible for Parole if they will not commit to the conditions of Parole or undermine the crime or the institution. Kansas statute grants Parole considering a litany of factors including personal comments and social history, and the Board will notify the parole applicant within a month of eligibility. Massachusetts has a more liberal parole release consideration including comments from parole staff and statements of the victim. The New York discretion for Parole has eliminated entire groups of possibly eligible parolees. In New York, codified deciding factors are independent judgment and statutory criteria. Maryland proposes a minimum time served of the sentence before Parole and at least 25 years of a life sentence, but the reality is discretion on the Board used to say “life means life”.
A reduction in the size of the Parole system will help eliminate the bureaucracy. The United States parole system is 110 years old. The purpose of the original system established was to reduce the number of inmates in federal prisons. There were only three federal prisons. Early on, the Attorney General appointed the Federal Board. The early officials used their degrees in psychology or law to help navigate the complicated field of who is less likely to be a menace to society. The federal system was mostly done away within 1994 and today replaced with state-run parole boards in most areas.
The disconnected system today is unorganized and handles too many applicants. In place, a smaller system without discretion would eliminate the vices of the current bureaucracy. In New York, an inmate lost parole after the parole board fabricated a plan to rely on false pretenses when they found that the Governor did not support their decision.The court held that Victory presented enough evidence to support his loss of liberty based on fabricated evidence because the Board moved to change their verdict to denial after being reprimanded by the Governor without following proper procedure. The court holding the rescission of his Parole needed a hearing because taking away freedom without a fair trial would violate the Due Process clause.
A bureaucracy occurs when members report endlessly upwards and are unfit to serve as executors of liberty. Initial reviews and final hearings complicate the review process. In many states, the files are passed around and judged. These are not lengthy hearings. In the interest of judicial efficiency, perhaps. Parole Boards make thousands of decisions each year with little time to get more than the facts on the file.
Complicated sentences that include an approximate time served before Parole are not sufficient. Penalties do not end once out of prison. Once on Parole, parolees lose fundamental rights to privacy. The Parole Board suffers conflicts of interest and is afraid to make decisions that would upset the Governor that appointed them. These positions are not truly independent but relative to the political and current schisms that allow for bureaucracy.
See Victory v. Pataki, 814 F.3d 47, 55 (2d Cir. 2016)(explaining the Governor held a “[V]ery strong belief that parole should not be granted to violent felons".).
See Greenholtz v. Inmates of Neb. Penal & Corr. Complex, 442 U.S. 1, 6 (1979).