For prisoners, it's a nearly no-parole world

Gerald Balone is at the heart of an emerging debate over the country's increasingly tough parole system.

Convicted of murder in a botched robbery in which three people were killed, Mr. Balone says he's done everything in his power to atone for the crime he committed as a teen. In the more than 30 years since, he's apologized and asked the victims' families for forgiveness. He's gotten two bachelor's degrees and a master's in theology.

He's worked to be a role model for other prisoners, counseling them on everything from AIDS to aggression.

Last month, he was denied parole for a fourth time.

"I have dedicated the rest of my life to helping others in whatever way I can," Balone writes from the Collins Correctional Facility in upstate New York. "Needless to say, this last parole decision was extremely painful."

Over the past decade, parole boards have made it more difficult for lawbreakers to get out early, particularly in cases of violent offenders like Balone. Thirteen states and the federal government have gone as far as doing away with parole altogether, replacing it with a system of predetermined sentences and release times.

It's the latest chapter in what some criminal-justice experts call the "Willie Horton" effect. Named for the furloughed prisoner whose repeat offense hurt Michael Dukakis's presidential bid in 1988, it's a fear of releasing anyone because the parole board - and the politicians who appoint them - get blamed if anything goes wrong.

Now, however, backlash is growing. "A lot of this has been driven by legislation and political edict, rather than good parole practices," says Gail Hughes, executive secretary of the Association of Paroling Authorities International in California, Mo. "The parole board is the entity that can look at the individual's progress, consider the victim's concerns, and weigh all of the factors involved. To eliminate them from the criminal-justice system is sort of foolhardy."

But advocates of "get tough" parole policies contend they've helped drive the crime rate to 30-year lows. They also say the shift away from parole, where a board decides individual cases, to a predetermined sentencing structure is fairer to both prisoners and the community.

"This is a truth-in-sentencing issue," says Tom Grant of the New York State Division of Parole. "By doing away with the parole board's discretionary release, it reintroduces fairness to the system. We know when they're going to get out, and so do they."

Moral questions

Yet a growing number of critics are raising constitutional as well as moral questions about what they see as unnecessarily punitive policies. They argue that denying parole robs prisoners of hope and the motivation to reform themselves.

Recently, a court in California ruled that Gov. Gray Davis's policy, which effectively denies parole to convicted murderers, is unconstitutional. Prison Fellowship International, moved by stories of seemingly capricious denials, has undertaken a report to document their impact. And reform groups, like New York's Coalition for Parole Restoration, are springing up.

In 1980, more than 70 percent of prisoners were paroled for good behavior after serving part of their sentence, according to the Association of Paroling Authorities International. Today, only about 30 percent are given discretionary release.

"There was a time in the '60s and '70s that we had this belief that we could reform or rehabilitate offenders," says Kevin Wright, a criminologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton. "People came into prisons, we had diagnostic systems to find out what was wrong with them, and then we would treat them and provide them with graduated release so they could adjust back to the community. Parole was also used as an effective way of controlling the population, because if you misbehaved, you didn't get parole."

Criminal-justice experts say the shift away from parole started in the mid-1970s as a reaction, in part, to spiraling crime rates. But now, with the nation's prisons bulging and breaking state budgets, the crackdown on parole is being revisited.

"In general, the pendulum tends to swing on crime issues," says Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association in Lexington, Ky. "I think there's a growing desire to look at alternatives to manage our offender population more cost effectively, and parole provides that."

While some states have done away with parole, others, like Vermont, have reformed and enhanced their parole and probation systems to provide better supervision after offenders are released.

New York has attempted a hybrid approach. According to legislation passed in 1998, violent offenders must serve 85 percent of their sentence. Good behavior - as determined by prison officials and not a parole board - can earn them early release for the remaining 15 percent. But even if they serve the full term, all prisoners receive supervision from parole officers once they're back on the streets.

With any system, possible inequities

Critics applaud the state for keeping the post-release supervision, but argue that doing away the parole board's discretion introduces unfairness into the system. Two people convicted of the same crime could still be released simultaneously, even if one works hard to reform while the other simply bides his time in jail. Ironically, the same critics are aware that the traditional parole system, with its current tough standards, can also create serious inequities.

Gerald Balone is a case in point. He was sentenced under New York's old system, in which the parole board still has discretion. If he'd been been sentenced under the new system, he might be out now with his record of good behavior.

"The sad part is that 30 years is a long time, and people do change," says Mr. Wicklund. "But I think that as a society we have become so scared of people that are 'out of sight, out of mind' that we're unable to forgive."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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