A Beaten Path Back to Prison
The New York Times | May 8, 2004
UNTIL JUST A WEEK AGO, Lerome Hilson seemed to be in better shape than most of New York City’s other parolees. He had been out of prison for 14 months, and now had his own apartment and a full-time job at a Manhattan restaurant. He showed up regularly for his appointments at the parole office and had passed his most recent drug test.
There was no reason to suspect he would join that small group of parolees whose actions earn them a spot on the evening news. Then came last Saturday. Mr. Hilson, who had spent six years in prison for burglary, reported for his job as a porter at Pop, a restaurant in the East Village. According to the police, he then confronted his boss and bashed him in the head with a fire extinguisher, killing him.
The headlines in the city’s papers were easy to predict. “Parolee Accused of Killing Popular Restaurant Manager,” read one. Another declared: “Parolee Arraigned in Murder.” By now, crime stories featuring a parolee as the perpetrator have become a staple of the nation’s newspapers. Yet most parolees who return to prison are not sent back because they committed a serious violent felony. Nevertheless, parole officers live in fear of the day when they’ll pick up a paper and see one of their parolees staring back at them.
Could Mr. Hilson’s parole officer have stopped him from killing (if Mr. Hilson indeed committed the crime)? Of course not. Nobody can watch all their parolees all the time or anticipate their every move. But in the wake of gruesome crimes, the temptation to blame one government agency or another can be overwhelming. In cases like this one, the target is usually the parole system. This scapegoating is unfair. However, it is true that the parole supervision system is desperately in need of wholesale reform.
For most of the time after his release from prison, Mr. Hilson was assigned to the state’s parole office at 119 West 31st Street. Inside, signs of the agency’s lowly status abound. The officers have no voice mail; yellow message slips cover their desks. They don’t have computers, either, and take notes by hand. When an officer wants to send a parolee back to jail, he typically drives him in an aged Ford Taurus equipped only with child safety locks.
This lack of resources is the legacy of a hundred Lerome Hilsons. Every parolee who commits a high-profile crime ensures that the parole system’s reputation sinks further. Parole officers may be the best-educated people in law enforcement—every officer in New York State has a four-year college degree and many have master’s degrees—but they receive little respect. Unsurprisingly, morale is low.
For officers, there are few rewards for good work. If your parolee finishes his sentence without getting into trouble, reporters do not call to interview you. Nobody shakes your hand or gives you a promotion. But if your parolee lands in the news for committing a vicious crime, you can expect plenty of calls, including one from your boss regarding your own interrogation.
Maybe this time there should be a different sort of response. The parole supervision system—in New York and across the country—needs to be re-examined. This year our prisons will release 630,000 men and women—a population larger than Boston, Seattle or Washington. The question of what goes on inside parole agencies should be a matter of urgent concern to every governor and state legislator.
Is the main purpose of officers to help parolees reintegrate into society? Or is it to monitor them and send them back to jail? It is the age-old debate: should the officer act as social worker or cop? Even within a single parole office, officers disagree about how to define their jobs. Nevertheless, over the last few decades, as the prison population has exploded and society has become more punitive, parole supervision has changed, too. Parole agencies once strove to rehabilitate former prisoners; today their mission has more to do with locking them up.
The officers assigned to the 31st Street building spend most of their time on surveillance—testing urine, conducting curfew checks—and less time trying to help parolees rebuild their lives by assisting them in getting a job, an apartment, an education or health care. Their caseloads are so large that even if they wanted to spend more time helping, they couldn’t. In 1980, New York State had 650 parole officers for 18,000 parolees. Today there are 869 officers for 44,570 parolees. Supervision often means devoting just two hours a month to each parolee.
It can be far easier to send a parolee back to prison than to try to ferret out the source of his problem and search for solutions. In 1980, 17 percent of people entering New York’s prisons had been sent there for violating parole; 20 years later, that number was 32 percent. In other words, nearly one-third of New York’s incoming prisoners have not been convicted of a new crime, but instead are being locked up for parole violations, like failing a drug test or skipping appointments or staying out past their 9 p.m. curfew.
Sending so many parolees back to prison is, of course, expensive. It’s a short-sighted policy that has attracted many critics, especially in California, where taxpayers spend nearly $900 million a year to lock up parole violators. If states sent fewer people back to prison, they could use that savings to help former prisoners re-enter society. They could hire more parole officers, shrink their caseloads and improve their equipment and training.
We can no longer afford to pay attention to parole officers only when something goes wrong. Figuring out how to reinvent the parole system requires their input, too. It’s in everyone’s best interest. How these officers perform their jobs—and how well parolees adjust to life on the outside—has an enormous impact on the safety, economics and soul of our nation.