Why parole isn't working

November 24, 1993

About half of those who leave Maryland prisons on parole have been released under mandatory provisions in the law or in their sentences. The Maryland Parole Commission has no discretion in the matter. When the commission does have discretion, it can and sometimes does act in an unprofessional way. That is, commissioners, most of whom are not trained for the job and some of whom are political appointees, make arbitrary decisions, in secret, without the advice of parole agents. Sometimes commissioners act despite advice of parole agents.

From time to time that results in especially tragic events, as Marina Sarris reported in The Sunday Sun Nov. 14. She told of two cases in which parolees violated the terms of their release, yet were allowed to remain free. One then raped a victim and the other murdered one.

In both cases the parole violations prior to the rape and murder were also violent crimes. In neither case was the "why" and "how" of the decision-making a public matter. Nor were the original decisions to grant parole made in the open.

Given the high stakes for all concerned -- former victims, possible future victims, -- this is unacceptable.

Granted openly or behind closed doors, parole is a questionable way to make society safer. There is no proof that it works as it was expected to. The original justification for letting convicted criminals out of prison before serving their full terms was that some could be rehabilitated in prison, and they should return to society sooner than those who had committed the same crime but had not shown signs of rehabilitation.

In theory that sounds fine, but in practice parole commissions have not demonstrated the ability to make distinctions with any degree of certitude. That is why many states, Maryland included, have greatly reduced the discretion parole commissions (and judges) have in deciding how long convicted criminals must remain in prison. It is why the federal government and three states have done away with parole altogether.

That may be going too far, but it may not be. In any event, a harshening of sentencing is clearly what the public wants today, at least for the most dangerous criminals -- especially the repeat offenders. It is the only way to incapacitate those responsible for most crime.

In today's public opinion climate, the public seems likely to get what it wants in the war on crime. The responsibility for state legislators is to get responsibly tough, keeping in mind always that their first goal is to make streets safe for the law-abiding.

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