Life Without Parole?

The system is supposed to help men like John Scott re-enter society. It isn’t working. Is it time to rethink parole supervision—or do away with it altogether?

The New York Times Magazine | May 19, 2002

AT THE PAROLE OFFICE on West 40th Street in Manhattan, Tuesdays are always busy. Parolees begin lining up on the sidewalk at 8 a.m., 20 minutes before the front door opens. By 8:30, most of the 80 seats in the waiting room are filled. Men greet each other by slapping palms, and the noise level rises throughout the morning. “A criminal social club,” a supervisor mutters, surveying the scene with a 9-millimeter pistol hidden beneath his jacket.

One Tuesday afternoon, John Scott, a 37-year-old former drug dealer, walked into the waiting room to check in with his parole officer. Tuesday is “report day” for parolees assigned to Manhattan III, the parole bureau covering West Harlem and Washington Heights, and Scott was living with his mother in her fourth-story apartment in West Harlem. He left Attica prison 58 days earlier.

Compared with many of the parolees sprawled on the chairs in this waiting room, Scott was thriving. He had been home for only a month when a friend told him about an opening at Copeland’s, a popular soul food restaurant on West 145th Street. Scott filled out an application and got a job washing pots.

The job paid just $5.50 an hour, but Scott managed to look as if he wasn’t broke. He had on jeans and a denim jacket bearing the trendy Rocawear label. No one would confuse him with the men who had just left prison, the ones who showed up at the parole office straight from Port Authority, lugging their possessions in a garbage bag. They wore plain sweatshirts and logo-less denim pants, the standard parting gifts of the New York State prison system.

In the hallway next to the waiting room, Scott described his plans for the coming months. “There are sacrifices I have to make,” he explained, chewing a wad of grape gum. “Everyone’s got their job they got to do. The parole officer has their job. I have to abide by the rules they set up. If I don’t, I’m never going to be able to pay back.”

Scott was no longer in prison, but he was also not completely free. “Paying back” his debt to society would mean staying out of trouble—obeying the many rules that govern the life of a parolee—until his parole concluded in 2007. According to Scott, when he walked out of Attica, he left prison for good. “I’m getting too old for all this,” he said.

An officer walked down the corridor, and Scott looked up. “P.O. Field, how’s it going?” he said. To me, Scott explained, “This is my parole officer from before.” Like many of his fellow parolees, Scott is a veteran of the parole system. His first visit to this office was in 1995, after he spent four and a half years in prison for selling cocaine. He was still on parole in 1998 when he was arrested for another cocaine sale and sent back to prison for three and a half years.

There may be no better sign that our criminal justice system is broken than a parole office where the new parolees already know the officers by name. Originally conceived as a one-way system of oversight and rehabilitation, parole today often functions like a circular conveyor belt, delivering recently freed people straight back to the penitentiary. Across the country, 725,000 men and women are on parole or a similar type of post-prison supervision. About 40 percent of ex-prisoners are back behind bars within three years of their release.

People are spending years, sometimes decades, cycling in and out of parole offices and prisons, seemingly unable to escape the grip of the criminal justice system. A 2001 study gave them a new moniker: “churners.” The question of what happens to men and women when they leave prison has never been as urgent as it is today. In 2002, America is expected to release a record 630,000 prisoners—a population larger than that of Milwaukee, Boston or Washington.

A SURPRISING NUMBER of the parolees returning to prison each year—about half, according to Justice Department officials—have not been convicted of a new crime. Rather, they are sent back for disobeying one or more of parole’s rules. Parolees cannot use drugs, stay out past curfew (usually 9 or 10 p.m.), skip appointments with their parole officers, hang out with anyone who has a criminal record, leave the state without permission or spend the night anywhere except their approved residences.

By cracking down on parolees who break these rules—who commit so-called technical violations—parole officers have helped keep prison cots full during an era of lowered crime rates. In 1999, parole violators made up 35 percent of people entering state prison, up from 17 percent in 1980.

Today technical violations are at the center of a complicated, highly charged debate about the future of parole supervision—about how the system fails and whether it can be fixed. Experts debate the topic on the pages of academic journals and on panels at criminal justice conferences. In recent years, the chorus of critics has grown louder and more diverse. No longer does it include only predictable voices, like those of prisoners’ rights attorneys. Now some criminal justice insiders, including many who have spent their careers trying to make the parole system work, are arguing for serious reform. Critics have suggested a wide range of solutions, including some radical ones, like significantly reducing the number of people on parole or even ending parole supervision altogether.

Imprisoning parolees who commit technical violations is supposed to prevent future crimes, but the effectiveness of this strategy is difficult to demonstrate. “There is no research that violative behavior is a precursor to criminal activity,” says Michael P. Jacobson, former commissioner of both New York City’s Department of Correction and Department of Probation. Locking up parolees who break parole’s rules may make sense intuitively, he says, “but there’s nothing that says that a guy who is starting to smoke marijuana again is about to bump someone on their head and take their pocketbook.”

To understand the pressures of being a parole officer, you need only remember Willie Horton or Jack Henry Abbott. Parole officers know they will not be punished if they send too many people back to prison—but they will if they fail to lock up a parolee and his mug shot pops up on the 11 p.m. news. And so, every day, officers send parolees back to prison for offenses that are not crimes.

One critic of this practice is Martin F. Horn, former executive director of the New York State Division of Parole, who says he believes that too many parolees are returning to prison for technical violations, a practice with a huge cost. A day in a New York City jail costs $175; the price tag for a year in a New York state prison is $32,000. “If tomorrow all the parole officers in New York City were taken on a cruise for a month, would there be an appreciable change in the crime rate?” Horn asks. “To spend that kind of money, you’d have to be able to say there definitely would be.”

THE WAITING ROOM at the West 40th Street parole office looks more like a rest stop on the journey back to prison than a bridge to the free world. Wanted posters decorate the bulletin board. Handwritten signs cover the windows: “No visitors, No wives, No girlfriends, No children, No friends, No mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles or cousins.” Mounted on a back wall, a wooden rack labeled Parolee Information is empty except for a few gum wrappers and two chewed-up lollipop sticks.

The people filling the hard plastic seats in this room offer a fairly accurate snapshot of the nation’s parolee population. Most are African-American or Latino. Almost all are male; only 9 percent of New York’s parolees are female. Many spend their nights on a cot at a city shelter. And about 70 percent of New York’s parolees do not have a high-school degree.

Walking through the parole office, you can’t miss the evidence of parole’s lowly status. Parole officers do not have computers, so they must hand-write all their notes, often recording the same information on three or four different forms. A secretary prepares warrants on an electric typewriter, correcting mistakes with white-out. And parole officers drive parolees back to jail in an aging Oldsmobile whose main precaution against escape is child-safety locks.

Parole agencies are trapped in a “huge policy tautology,” according to Jacobson, now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “You don’t give them any money, so they can’t do their jobs,” he says. “So you have all these high-profile incidents happen where the reaction is, ‘Well, you’re not doing your job, so we’re going to give you less money.’ ”

Across the country, many parole officers have seen their caseloads grow significantly over the last two decades. Today some parole officers oversee 70 or more people. A parole officer with a 70-person caseload has about half an hour a week to devote to each parolee. Subtract the minutes an officer spends on paperwork, testifying in court and traveling to parolees’ homes and jobs, and “parole supervision” begins to look like a misnomer.

By 4 p.m. on this Tuesday, Officer Pamela Howell had already met with 16 men and 2 women. She returned to the waiting room and scanned her parolees’ sign-in sheet.

“Scott!” she shouted.

John Scott followed Officer Howell down a grimy corridor, past a row of small rooms where other officers were interrogating their parolees. When they first meet her, most parolees tell Officer Howell, “You don’t look like a parole officer.” She was wearing a long black skirt with a slit up one side, black heels, a denim jacket, pink nail polish and a tiny silver stud in her nose. Almost every report day, at least one of her parolees tries to flirt with her. When Scott first spied her in the waiting room, he thought about approaching her. “I was getting ready to ask her name,” he said. “Then I thought: Hold it. Hold it. That’s my P.O.”

Officer Howell last saw Scott a few days earlier, when she stopped by his job late one night. “She was looking to catch me,” Scott said with a grin. Officer Howell had given him permission to stay out past curfew, but only as long as he was working.

The parole officer and parolee chatted for a minute, and then she launched into her standard set of four questions:

“Any police contact?” she asked.

“No,” he said.

“Any problems or changes?”


“Any drugs?”


“Same employment?”

“Yeah. You want to see my pay stub?”

Officer Howell jotted down Scott’s answers and photocopied his pay stub. Fifty-eight percent of New York’s parolees are unemployed, so Officer Howell tries to offer encouragement to those parolees who do manage to find a job. “You’re doing the right thing,” she told Scott. “I’m really proud of you.”

The meeting lasted only a few minutes, then Officer Howell escorted Scott back to the waiting room. This afternoon, plenty of other people needed her attention more than he did. At the moment, her 70-parolee caseload included a stroke victim with a severe limp who was facing eviction; a heroin addict who stopped taking his H.I.V. meds because he did not like the side effects; a former drug dealer who staggered into her office reeking of beer; and a mentally ill woman who hears voices telling her to kill.

There was a time when parole officers played a more active role in their parolees’ lives, helping them navigate government bureaucracies and sometimes even driving them to drug programs or job interviews. Today officers’ ability to help is largely limited to delivering pep talks and handing out referrals. Still, before the end of her workday at 8 p.m., Officer Howell had found a rehab program for her drunk parolee, lectured the H.I.V.-positive man about taking his pills and urged the mentally ill woman not to give up on drug treatment.

PAROLE HAS BEEN A CORNERSTONE of America’s criminal justice system since the early 20th century. The original hope was that by rewarding well-behaved prisoners with early release—and by supervising them once they returned home—the criminal justice system could rehabilitate them. But long ago, that goal fell out of favor, and legislators began chipping away at the parole system. Sixteen states have abolished their parole boards. Four more states have eliminated parole release for certain violent felons.

Today the post-prison supervision system is rife with inconsistencies. Oregon, for example, supervises virtually everyone exiting its prisons; Florida monitors only about half. There are also huge differences between states in how rigidly they control ex-prisoners. The most punitive state is California, which has about 120,000 parolees and locks up around 70,000 of them each year for technical violations.

The disparities between states are fodder for parole’s critics. “Our traditional way of managing parole supervision is intellectually bankrupt,” says Jeremy Travis, former director of the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department. Travis was the lead author of “From Prison to Home,” a report published last year by the Urban Institute. “We don’t have a clear idea of what we want this agency to do and why,” he says about parole. “It has lost its public legitimacy, which is the necessary grounding for any public agency.”

Such criticisms rile parole officials. “What would you prefer?” asks Martin Cirincione, executive director of the New York State Division of Parole. “Someone who’s been convicted of a crime, and very often a violent crime, coming out with no supervision, no treatment, no link to resources, no enforcers? Or would you prefer to have that person supervised?”

For parolees, the task of rebuilding their lives has become much more difficult in recent years, at the same time that parole officers have less time to help them. Congress eliminated Pell grants for prisoners in 1994 despite numerous studies showing that higher education reduces recidivism. As a result, almost every prison college program was shut down. Without a college degree, former prisoners have little chance of earning much more than minimum wage. Even low-skill jobs are difficult to obtain for somebody with a felony record. And public housing agencies can ban anyone with a criminal record, leaving vast numbers of parolees with nowhere to live.

At the same time, the population of people leaving prison has become even more needy. An estimated 16 percent of state prisoners are seriously mentally ill; every parole officer in the West 40th Street office seems to oversee a few. These officers have few options when a schizophrenic or manic-depressive person does not obey their rules. Finding these parolees a slot at a treatment program can take several months.

One report day, I watched as a mentally ill man, who had been arrested recently for marijuana, met with his parole officer. Another, more stable parolee might have received a stern lecture, but there was little debate about whether this man should go back to jail. “We don’t want a subway pusher,” said the supervisor who signed his warrant. “He’s not a guy who I would throw the dice on.”

The favorite buzzword inside the West 40th Street parole office is “public safety.” “We don’t work for the people we interact with,” says Dan Culleton, bureau chief for Manhattan III. “We work for the people who pay us.” Under Gov. George E. Pataki, the state’s parole officers have become stricter. The number of parolees locked up annually for technical violations has more than doubled in the last decade, from 6 to 13 percent.

Over several weeks, I watched officers whisk a few dozen people out of the building in handcuffs. Some of these parolees were very hard to sympathize with. Thirty-year-old Darrell had been arrested for shoplifting a few days earlier. A review of Darrell’s file revealed that he had once been involved in a fatal shootout. “It’s much more than the average level of violence,” Culleton says, “so he’s got to go.”

On another Tuesday afternoon, a 24-year-old parolee named Terrence sat slumped in a chair in the hallway outside the row of report rooms. A pair of steel cuffs held his wrists together. Terrence had been living at a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, or at least that’s what he told his parole officer. When the officer visited a few days earlier, Terrence’s name was missing from the shelter registry.

The officer suspected Terrence was actually living with family in New Jersey—probably a more stable home than the drug-infested shelter. But this qualified as a parole violation, since parolees cannot leave the city or live out of state without permission.

Two months earlier, Terrence left prison after completing a 12-month sentence for drug possession. It is difficult to imagine how sending him back to jail improves public safety. But the parole rule requiring parolees to disclose their address seems to have less to do with preventing crime than with ensuring that officers can perform their jobs. “How can the parole officer make home visits if he doesn’t know where you live?” says Horn, the former parole official.

Parole officers have a great deal of discretion, but they are also supposed to enforce every rule. As a result, Horn says, way too many parolees return to prison for what he calls “housekeeping” violations, like skipping appointments with their officers. “Why do we require a person to report to his parole officer?” he asks. “Because you can’t do the so-called supervision if you can’t see the parolee. The only reason that rule exists is to facilitate the relationship between the parole officer and the parolee.”

The decision to send parolees like Terrence back to jail also has significant financial repercussions. “No one in government, at least no one I know of, can spend money like a parole officer,” says Professor Jacobson, who is conducting a national study of parole. “You give this agency and its officers nothing, but that same officer who works with a yellow pad in some crummy office . . . can just violate”—imprison on a technical violation—“one person a week and spend $2 million.” He adds: “No one looks at this. Nobody. Not even their supervisors. Everybody is too busy.”

TWO MONTHS AFTER John Scott landed the job at Copeland’s, he quit. He complained that scrubbing pots left him with an aching back, that he earned less than $200 a week after taxes, that working both weekend nights interfered with his ability to have a love life. “I don’t see nobody,” he said. “It occupied all my time, and I didn’t get no money out of it. That’s not a job.”

Scott did not have another job lined up, but he was confident he would find work. He did not at first seem worried about the ailing local economy or his own lack of a high-school diploma. But the next months did not turn out quite the way Scott had hoped. His relationship with his parole officer began to show signs of strain in December, when she started pressuring him to get a job. “Idle time kills these guys,” Officer Howell says.

Then, in January, Officer Howell received a troubling phone call from Scott’s girlfriend, who said that he had beaten her up. Officer Howell takes a zero-tolerance policy approach to domestic violence, and she wanted to arrest Scott the next time she saw him. But his girlfriend was reluctant to testify against him, and without her help, Officer Howell could not send Scott to jail.

Over the next few months, Scott’s relationship with his parole officer got worse. By the time Officer Howell decided to lock him up, he had racked up several technical violations, including three drug tests that showed cocaine use and one missed parole appointment. He had also been arrested for a drug sale. Scott told Howell that he was not guilty—the case has not yet been resolved—but she could not overlook the fact that the incident occurred at almost 2 a.m., well past his curfew.

“Maybe he started thinking he could do the street thing all over again,” Officer Howell said. One week, Scott told Howell that he had won about $1,200 playing the numbers. On his lucky days, gambling proved far more lucrative, and much less onerous, than washing pots at Copeland’s.

“I am really disappointed in that guy,” Officer Howell said. “Sooner or later, they get too old, and they say, ‘I can’t do this no more.’ I don’t know what it’ll take for Scott to get there, but he’s not there yet.”

LAST SUMMER, Martin F. Horn tossed a hand grenade into the debate over parole’s future when he published an article in a trade journal calling for an end to the current parole system. Plenty of other people have suggested eliminating parole, but this latest attack stung local parole officials. After all, Horn spent 16 years at New York’s parole agency, climbing the ladder from parole officer to executive director. (After leaving in 1995, Horn oversaw Pennsylvania’s prison system and is now commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation.)

If Horn had his way, there would be no more technical violations, since people would return to prison only if they committed a new crime. “Prison is our most expensive criminal justice resource,” he says. “We should always ask ourselves: ‘Are we getting a return on our money from an investment point of view? And can we get a similar or better return through another alternative?’ ” Horn’s suggestion: Open halfway houses for newly freed people and set up a voucher system that would enable them to purchase the services they need, like drug treatment.

Most experts believe Horn’s plan is more provocative than practical, that politicians would never agree to eliminate parole supervision for all felons. Indeed, earlier this year, after The Boston Globe reported that most people leaving Massachusetts prisons are unsupervised, Gov. Jane Swift promised to establish mandatory post-prison supervision.

But reducing the number of parolees imprisoned for technical violations doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating parole supervision altogether. In 2000, legislators in Kansas decreased the amount of time that low-level felons spend on parole; already its parolee population has shrunk by one-third. Another idea some experts have floated is “goal-oriented” parole, which would reward parolees who meet certain goals by letting them off parole early. These sorts of changes could help out cash-strapped states, including California, which spends close to $900 million a year locking up its technical violators, according to Professor Jacobson.

But technical violations are just one piece of a much larger public policy puzzle: what to do with the hundreds of thousands of people now leaving prison? There is no shortage of ideas for how to improve the rate of recidivism: prepare prisoners for their release better and earlier; train them for jobs that pay more than minimum wage; teach them all to read and write. These ideas are hardly novel, but implementing them will require a radical shift in what we expect of our criminal justice system—not just to punish felons but also to help them rebuild their lives after prison.

It will also require that we begin to embrace an uncomfortable truth. We spend nearly all of our criminal justice dollars on turning citizens into prisoners—on sending men and women to prison and keeping them there—and very little on trying to turn those prisoners back into citizens. Yet nearly everyone who goes to prison eventually comes out. While experts continue debating what to do with our ex-prisoners, new parolees arrive at the West 40th Street office every week, with a garbage bag of possessions and hope for a new beginning.

ONE TUESDAY LATE LAST MONTH, at the beginning of their regular weekly meeting, Officer Howell snapped a pair of cuffs around Scott’s wrists and arrested him for violating the terms of his parole. It was his 268th day home from prison. They talked for a while in her office, and then she drove him to the Manhattan House of Detention. Scott did not put up a fight. Instead, he acted as if he did not mind going back to jail, as if he thought the whole situation was some sort of joke. “Why are you laughing?” Officer Howell said. “This isn’t funny. I hope you’re just laughing to keep from crying.”

Officer Howell figures she will see Scott again in the not-too-distant future. “He’ll be sitting in the waiting room on somebody else’s caseload,” she says.



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