Parole – Does It Work?

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The operation of our parole system is an issue that incites heated debate. The legal issues involved are complex and touch upon community views on punishment, safety and the dependability of our criminal justice system.

Unfortunately, parole has always been more than a simple legal issue. It has been the plaything of politicians at least since former Premier Rann sought to impose his will on the State’s Parole Board and the decisions it made.

The populists in Parliament will always have a receptive audience amongst many in the community when they rail against the release of (usually) long serving prisoners.

Victims and their relatives are inevitably disappointed when a sentence is passed that includes what to them is potentially an unduly generous non-parole period.

Judges are asked to perform feats of Solomon-like wisdom by first assessing a term of imprisonment of appropriate length and then guessing how much of it should actually be served before it is safe for parole to be considered.

Prisoners suffer the uncertainty of never actually knowing their release date given that the date is subject to a successful parole application before the Parole Board.

In other words, it is a system with few friends, creates more problems than it solves and ultimately pleases no-one.

Parole is not meant to be used as a regulator of the jail population. It is not meant to be a free kick for politicians who see political mileage in raising the specter of criminals being prematurely released. It imposes on judges and the Parle Board alike, the impossible task of looking into the future – a task which they both so often fail to achieve when a parolee commits another crime during his release.

The parole system is essentially a method of control over an imprisoned population, men and women who are often angry, violent, depressed and impatient to be released. They know that if they misbehave while in prison their chances of being released on parole by the due date or later, diminish with each episode. It is understandable that they might do or say anything that they think will help in their bid for parole and to be released before their full sentence is served.

And that is precisely what is wrong with the parole system.

When persons are imprisoned, the community and the legal system have a right to expect that they will conform to the appropriate rules and regulations of behavior while in prison. If they do not, then they are likely to serve their full sentence.

By “full sentence” I mean the sentence that the judge decided was the appropriate length of time for the crime committed. What the parole system does then is to reward the prisoner for “good” behavior by constantly dangling the carrot of early release before them. It tells them that if they behave themselves, the sentence that the judge believed was appropriate for their crime, can be reduced.

Given the problems that this approach causes to all involved in the criminal justice system, it is time to review it. Why should a prisoner be rewarded, just for serving his time in the manner to be expected – without bashing warders, without taking drugs, assaulting other prisoners or for committing any of the other myriad of indiscretions that occur.

If those things occur, doesn’t it make more sense to penalise the prisoner by increasing his sentence so that he or she will know that after they serve the time imposed by the judge, they will serve additional time as a result of their behaviour while in prison? They will know too, that if they are well-behaved, they will have the certainty of knowing that they will definitely be released on a specific date.

If this approach were adopted, which is the reverse of the current one, prisoners would know their actual release date, judges and the Parole Board would be spared the impossible task of looking into the future, no offences would be committed by those on parole, victims would not have the pain of trying to understand why a prisoner is being “let off” from serving the full sentence imposed, and meddling populist politicians would have little to beat their chests over.

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