Parole is a highly questionable issue in Australia and all over the world. A likely cause for this controversy is the public’s ignorance of the specifics where parole is worried. Any casual observation of a regional paper or present affairs program on TELEVISION will likely lead to the discovery of a member of the general public’s viewpoint of criminal offense and crooks and the criminal justice system in basic, and what they believe to be incorrect with it and no doubt suggestions on how to fix it.
These opinions will most likely be biased in nature, and influenced by details supplied to them by numerous forms of media. This information does not always reflect the truth of the situation regarding the parole system. Including to this capacity for misinterpretation is the fact that the parole system is rather deceptive by nature, with promotion usually being available in the form of more “marvelous ” or relevant scenarios, such as high profile figures being launched, or somebody absconding while on parole, and specifically when founded guilty sex-offenders or killers are launched early back into society.
These are typically the only scenarios where the basic public has any understanding of parole, and the connection tends to be an unfavorable one.
Aside from public (mis)conceptions, parole has its share of troubles in useful application. Deciding which prisoners are to be released and when is a very subjective procedure in which there is a big margin for error. It is impossible to forecast with 100% precision whether a detainee will re-offend or not, and it is just when the prisoner does re-offend that the public receives any information about the parole system, more contributing to its unfavorable image.
This paper will look at the pros and cons of parole, and attempt to demonstrate that its utilisation in Australia is as close to properly balanced as it can be, considering the difficulties in assessing who should be released and when. The weight of material available on this topic appears to largely be against parole, at least in its current form. Taking this into account, probably the best way forward for parole is not to abolish it altogether, but reform it in ways that satisfy the many critics who share the same negative opinions of the system. Parole will always have its critics and supporters, but declaring that it is over- or under-utilised in Australia is too specific a statement for a subject that has such a broad scope and myriad mitigating factors and circumstances.
Parole is a very common feature of criminal justice systems, and while the specifics concerning the conditions may vary from country to country and state to state, the general principle remains more or less the same. Parole is when “an offender serving time in detention can serve part of their sentence in the community under the supervision of parole officers and under certain restrictive behaviour conditions” (White and Perrone, 2004). The parolee is subject to recall for misconduct. Some of the restrictions placed on the parolee include the condition that he or she not associate with known criminals or get into trouble with the law. Typically, the parolee must acquire and keep a job, and maintain regular contact with their parole officer. Failure to comply with any of these standard parole conditions may result in the parolee being returned to prison.
Parole is also seen by some as a “reward for good behaviour while they are in prison” (safe-nz.org.nz, 2006), which is an example of one of the more sceptical views of parole. Ideally, the modern parole system in Australia is designed to incorporate the correctional philosophy of rehabilitation: “The conditional freedom of parole would allow an offender guided and supervised transition from custody to the community in circumstances conducive to reform” (Law Reform Commission NSW, 2001). This contrasts the previous view of parole in that its philosophy is somewhat idealistic, rather than pessimistic. The underlying purpose of the parole system in this case was for the benefit of the community coming from rehabilitative effects of supervised, conditional early release. It was designed as a concession to the prisoner which was also expected to benefit the community as a whole, at the same time providing the environmental influences which would discourage the offender from committing further offences (Law Reform Commission NSW, 2001).
Parole was originally designed in the mid-1800s as an alternative to incarceration when it became apparent that incarceration was unsatisfactorily effective at preventing further criminal behaviour by offenders (Travis, 1995). It was agreed that a system of reform would prove more effective than imprisonment when it came to producing law-abiding citizens. While parole has its origins in America, it underwent revision on Norfolk Island in a British penal colony operated by Alexander Maconochie, now referred to as the “father of parole”. This system, where prisoners were allowed increasing levels of freedom and other benefits in reward for good behaviour and productivity, laid the groundwork for the modern parole system in use today, though there have been modifications made in response to changing political and economic situations, as well as legal challenges.
The parole system has had its criticisms in the years since its introduction into the Australian criminal justice system, with some questioning the procedures involved, and others calling for the abolition of parole altogether. Some of these criticisms come in the form of somewhat one-sided, subjective calls for the abolition of parole on the basis that “a considerable proportion of offenders (as many as 50% of violent offenders) are psychopathic, and their behaviour cannot be significantly altered in the long or even short term by anything, let alone the promise of parole” (safe-nz.org.nz, 2006). This is obviously a statement designed to shock the public into thinking that the majority of prisoners are raving lunatics that will wreak havoc in the community the moment they are paroled. In addition, the figures quoted and the opinions given are not backed up by any kind of statistic or other reference, so it is safe to relegate statements such as this to the same category shared by letters of outrage sent to local newspapers by individuals who are largely ignorant of the details of the parole system.
There have been, of course, criticisms of parole which have come from well informed, official bodies and government departments. One example of such a criticism came from the Australian Law Reform Commission in 1980, as part of a paper designed to promote discussion and elicit comments to be considered by the Commission before preparing its final report regarding sentencing of Federal offenders. This paper called for the abolition of parole, and if that were not possible, then the substantial reform of parole to make it fairer and more consistent. Several factors were outlined by this paper as being major failings of the parole system in Australia. The first among them is the criticism that parole has the effect of creating uncertainty and indeterminacy in the sentencing of an offender. The Law Reform Commission apparently preferred determinate sentencing in 1980, at least for Federal offenders, though no explanation for this is given in their paper.
Secondly, parole is criticised for the flawed assumption that a prisoner’s behaviour can be predicted at all once he or she is released, and especially that the behaviour can be predicted based on that prisoner’s conduct while within the prison. The next chief failing of parole, according to the Law Reform Commission in 1980, concerns the secrecy surrounding the proceedings of parole, in that the decisions made regarding the prisoner are unreviewable and therefore have an impact on the liberty of the individual concerned. The paper also labelled parole a “charade”, in that the public is no longer fooled into thinking that the prisoner will serve the full term of their sentence, and that the reality is that offenders were likely to spend only a short time in prison.
The paper acknowledged that parole would be extremely difficult to simply abolish, and in the likelihood that it wasn’t, radical reform was warranted. The suggestions for reform essentially dealt with the criticisms mentioned above, meaning that parole should be standardised throughout Australia and prisoners should be allowed more civil liberty regarding their parole hearings. These liberties would be in the form of reasons being given for the denial of parole, prisoner access to records to be considered by parole authorities, prisoner participation and representation in parole hearings, and someone being made responsible for providing information to the families of the prisoner (Law Reform Commission, 1980).
However, the position of the Australian Law Reform Commission changed from pro-abolition to pro-reform, after it became clear that the removal of parole led to overpopulation in prisons in conjunction with enormous costs, as experienced by several states in America which had abolished parole (Law Reform Commission NSW, 2001). That being said, the current criticisms of parole remain more or less unchanged, it is only the position of the Commission which is different, with reform rather than abolition being the main objective. According to the NSW Law Reform Commission (2001), there are three main issues which warrant criticism.
First, deficiencies in procedure lead to a lack of predictability, openness and accountability. This ties in with the above mentioned criticism that prisoners’ liberties are affected. Secondly, the public perceives parole as undermining judicial sentencing, weakening the desired effect of prison as a deterrent. This is similar to the above point that parole is a “charade”, and that it promotes uncertainty in criminal punishment. Thirdly, the report reiterates that it is impossible to safely predict the behaviour of prisoners, and grant them parole based on that prediction. It goes as far to say that the behavioural expertise of parole board members is non existent, and that the basis for parole decision making is flawed (Law Reform Commission NSW, 2001).
As stated earlier, the weight of opinion on the parole system appears to largely be in the negative. However, parole was originally created for positive, humane reasons. The original idea was that parole would encourage good behaviour by the prisoner while in prison, alleviate the harshness of a sentence, and to provide the prisoner with the potential of restoration to society. These positive aspects of parole are still valid today, but it is the negative side which inevitably receives most of the attention.
Probably the most obvious benefit of parole is that as an alternative to incarceration, it helps to alleviate the growing problem of overcrowding in prisons: “if probation and parole were not available as alternatives to incarceration·the prison and jail population would increase fourfold” (Travis, 1995). Considering that it is estimated that it costs around $50,000 per year to house a prisoner in a maximum security prison, quadrupling the current expenditure would be unacceptable by any government’s standards.
A less obvious point concerning parole, one which is probably largely overlooked by the general public, is that being on parole is still punishment for crime. Prisoners are not simply set free to do as they will. Parolees are under strict supervision, and being under sentence sets them apart from free citizens (Travis, 1995). There are many strict restrictions placed upon them, any infraction of which could result in their immediate return to prison. This means that parolees may be incarcerated for actions which would not otherwise be punishable by law. The benefit, however, is that parolees have the opportunity to rehabilitate to the community, something they cannot do while inside the prison. While still restricted in their activities and movements, parolees obviously have more freedom than inmates, which provides them with the incentive to display good conduct, both while in prison in order to be granted parole, and while on parole in order to avoid being sent back to prison.
The main goal of parole is to provide a period of conditional, supervised transition between prison and freedom in the community. This clearly has inherent risks, but this risk must be compared to the risk of releasing a prisoner at the end of the sentence without some transitional period. This risk to the community is limited by parole “by promoting rehabilitation of offenders, thereby saving the community from the consequences of recidivism and the costs of punishing it” (Law Reform Commission NSW, 2001).
Many of the criticisms levelled at parole rely on faults with the procedure, which, according to the Law Reform Commission of NSW (2001) do not exist in the state’s current system. In addition, as mentioned earlier, public attention on parole and its failings are going to be provided by the media, which inevitably means that the focus will be on dramatic failures, rather than successes. We are far more likely to hear about a former prisoner who has committed a crime while on parole, who obviously could not have done so were he in prison. Situations such as this lead the public to believe that parolees will inevitably commit crime once released. It must be recognised that neither parole nor imprisonment can guarantee the prevention of the commission of further crimes (Law Reform Commission NSW, 2001), but at least parole gives the prisoner a better chance at rehabilitation, due to the supervised transitional period.
On paper, the negative side to parole seems to far outweigh the positive, but it must be acknowledged that the perceived faults of a system are far more likely to be written about than the positive aspects. If a system was perfect, there would be little need to review it. Considering that there have been numerous calls to abolish parole, but it has usually been retained after inquiries, it can be concluded that the system has more benefits than drawbacks. Those places where parole was abolished suffered from unmanageable prison populations and massive costs, leading to the retention of parole in other states and nations which were considering its removal.
Parole, like any other system, has its faults, and even with radical reform it will draw criticism. Procedural difficulties can be overcome, but probably the main problem is ascertaining who should be paroled and when. Until better, more effective methods of making this assessment are devised, parole is always going to be criticised for being ineffective, too lenient and for undermining the court’s authority when sentencing the offender. Until more effective methods for predicting and/or modifying the offender’s behaviour are developed, the use of parole in Australia is as properly balanced as it can be. Travis (1995) sums up the situation quite succinctly: “Community supervision itself represents a balance between individual interests in avoiding incarceration, and community interests in controlling potential criminality”. This is a balance which could only be upset by the radical reform of the current parole system.