California State University, Long Beach
Inside CSULB Logo

Return To Prison? Many Will

Published: January 15, 2014

Criminal Justice’s Christine Scott-Hayward knows that, unlike the game of Monopoly, there are no real get-out-of-jail-free cards and her research into parole demonstrates that.

Scott-Hayward, who joined CSULB last year, earned her BCL (International) from University College Dublin (Law), her M.A. in the social sciences from the University of Chicago and her doctorate in law and society from New York University.

Informed by her interdisciplinary law and society background, she examines parole and post-prison supervision—in particular federal supervised release. “A third of the people released from prison nationally will return,” she explains, “and in California, until recently, that rate was two-thirds.” Research shows that “they will violate their parole within three years.”

What is the impact of parole as an institution on rehabilitation and reentry into society? Scott-Hayward’s dissertation research indicates that parole does not have a positive impact on an individual’s ability to reenter society.

“I reviewed previous recidivism research and found that there was little correspondence between recidivism rates and parole supervision,” she said. “People released from prison without supervision had similar recidivism rates to those released onto parole.”

However, there is more to parole than just public safety. Traditionally, parole was also supposed to help rehabilitate former prisoners and help them adjust to life outside prison. To determine whether parole had any positive effects beyond public safety, Scott-Hayward interviewed people on parole about their re-entry experiences.

“I found that at best, parole officers were simply service brokers, but at worst, the parole system put stumbling blocks in the way of parolees; for example, by restricting them from traveling out of state without a parole officer’s permission,” she said. “But in a state like New York, where New Jersey is a subway trip away, that can be a problem. We know that re-connecting with family can have a positive impact on an individual’s ability to reenter society; yet some parole officers prevent parolees from leaving the state and visiting their families. In addition, although we know that employment is important to successful reintegration, an officer might not want a parolee to get a job right away and instead require them to complete drug treatment first.” Overall, Scott-Hayward found that while “parole doesn’t hurt in every case, it does in some.”

Despite the mixed evidence about its effectiveness, release from prison onto some form of conditional supervision is virtually automatic in the U.S. and Scott-Hayward wants to understand why. Her most recent research studied the sentence of supervised release, which is the federal equivalent of parole. The main difference between the two is that while parole release is a form of early release, supervised release is part of a federal sentence and extends the amount of time a person is under correctional control.

“I found that not only did judges not think about why they were imposing supervised release but that imposition seemed to be automatic,” she said. “Not every prisoner needs supervised release but 95 percent get it. I think of that as a waste of resources.”

Based on her research, Scott-Hayward believes that corrections officials and legislators should consider the future of parole. She argues that parole and post-prison supervision should be limited to people who are at a high risk to reoffend and that low risk people should be released from prison without supervision but with access to services to help them successfully reenter society. In terms of the release decision, deciding when a parole board should release someone onto parole is a difficult decision.

“On one hand, you don’t want to release anyone too early because you don’t want to be the parole board that released someone who commits a violent crime. On the other hand, you might not be able to keep people in prison for their full sentences because of capacity issues,” she said. “Parole boards look for an admission of guilt or an acceptance of responsibility. If you think you were wrongfully convicted, you’re not going to get parole. They are looking for remorse and participation in programs. Now, they also look at risk-assessment tools. There are actuarial tools that can predict quite well if you will commit more crimes if you are released. These ought to be balanced against indicators of re-entry. Do you have a family member you can live with? Is there a job set up? There is a balance sought between the risk of reoffense and having those things set up that will help you upon your release.”

Money is the ultimate arbiter of parole’s fate.

“Policy changes are happening because states begin to realize how expensive it is to have people in prison. They realize they can’t just keep locking up people,” she said. “A lot of the changes that have been made that might have been perceived before as soft on crime are now being described in terms of money. One scholar has called it ‘humonetarianism.’ Today, parole is less about rehabilitation and more about evidence-based practices that work. There are things we can do that prevent recidivism. Politicians can be appealed to via the pocketbook.”