Parole in the US-National Institute of Corrections-US Parole Commission-DC Public Safety Radio

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[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I am your host Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, we have two guests today to talk about parole in the United States. It’s everything you ever wanted to know about parole. That’s one of the things that we’re going to be talking about today, on today’s program. I’m really honored today to have Commissioner Cranston J. Mitchell. He’s the Vice-Chairman of the United States Parole Commission. Also at our microphones is Robbye Braxton-Mintz, she’s the Correctional Program Specialist for the National Institute of Corrections, and to Commissioner Mitchell and Robbye Mintz, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Robbye Mintz:  Thank you.

Commissioner Mitchell:  Hello.

Len Sipes:  All right. Commissioner, we’re going to start with you. The average person out there, even those of us within the criminal justice system are sometimes confused as to what it is we mean by parole. What is parole?

Commissioner Mitchell:  Well, Len, let me give you the short answer. Parole is a discretionary act that is taken by the executive branch of government, both federal and state, and it is to make determination on whether or not an individual can be released from a correctional facility, a prison, and serve the remaining portion of their sentence within the community. I think what makes it so complex for people and difficult to understand is that there are 50 different states, and each one of those states have different parole policies. And so, when you’re listening to a news clip or news bite, it’s not universally understood. If you’re talking about a situation that happens in Nebraska as it relates to parole, well, the rules that apply in Rhode Island or Alabama are very different than would apply in Nebraska. So we’re mixing apples with oranges when you talk about the issues around parole. But my initial comments in terms of a simple description of what parole is, it is, again, the discretionary release of individuals from a correctional setting.

Len Sipes:  So there’re two kinds of releases from a correctional setting. There is what we call mandatory in the business, which means that the person serves 85% of the sentence or a specific number of years or percentage within the prison system. And then the state can no longer legally hold them. And with parole, it is a group of individuals or an individual who makes the discretionary release to the point where they’re saying to themselves, we think that the person a) either served enough time or b) no longer poses a significant risk to public safety so we’re going to release him from the prison system. And ordinarily, there are reasons for that, completing programs, doing well in prison, showing no signs of an antisocial attitude. Do I have those, that bifurcation there?

Commissioner Mitchell:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  Either mandatory or discretionary release?

Commissioner Mitchell:  Yeah. That’s pretty accurate. I mean, mandatory is, again, is used kind of generically as we talk about the truth in sentencing times and legislation that went across this country, and also what exists in some systems is that mandatory means that is the expiration of your sentence. So it just kind of depends on which kind of terms you’re talking about. But clearly, you’re absolutely correct. Parole is the opportunity to leave a prison setting sooner than your mandatory date.

Len Sipes:  Okay.

Commissioner Mitchell:  And that date is generally, that release is generally driven by many other things you pointed out, in terms of is this person still a risk to the community, do they have the necessary support systems out there in the community?

Len Sipes:  Right.

Commissioner Mitchell:  To make a successful transition from prison back to the community.

Len Sipes:  And ordinarily, when they’re released, they’re under the supervision, not all, because there are some expiration of sentences where the person doesn’t get out early at all. I mean, they serve day for day, but that’s pretty rare. The overwhelming majority come out under some sort of correctional supervision via parole or a probation agency like mine.

Commissioner Mitchell:  Well, that is the prevailing thought across the country, that, that is the best practice. That an individual leaving the system should leave with some sort of supervision in some way to monitor their reintroduction back into the community.

Len Sipes:  Now, the United States Parole Commission, as you said in the opening, every state’s going to have their own Parole Commission. And that always tickles me pink because whenever I look at television, and the television, the accountable parole commission, it kind of looks like a court hearing. Even to the point of people sitting on a bench, looks like a judge, and in most cases, parole hearings in this country seems to be a specialist who makes the decision and then that specialist goes to one or a couple of people who either confirm or deny that specialist’s recommendation. So it’s not nearly as formal as what you see on television.

Commissioner Mitchell:  Well, again, it varies. When I was with the National City Corrections, before I came to the Parole Commission, I travelled around the country and visited a multitude of parole authorities, and some actually do have a very formal courtroom setting where the actual decision makers sit. In some states, you have professional staff people who conduct the inquiries with the inmate and then, they present a recommendation or a report back to the commissioners. For instance, at the US Parole Commission where parole has been abolished, although within the federal system, although we still have people who are under the law, at the time they were incarcerated, they had the opportunity for parole, we use hearing examiners and none of the commissioners actually formally sit at a parole hearing. So in some of my opening comments, in terms of the variety of systems out there, they look very differently.

Len Sipes:  The concept of the US Parole Commission is what, federal law and also having jurisdiction over DC code offenders?

Commissioner Mitchell:  That’s correct. It is federal law. Correct.

Len Sipes:  Now, but basically, what we’ve said is that they now serve 85% of the sentence and when they come out, they’re under the jurisdiction of the US Parole Commission.

Commissioner Mitchell:  Within the legislation, the US Parole Commission, which was abolished, has authority over the offenders who were in the system prior to the abolishment of federal parole.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Commissioner Mitchell:  We have responsibility over military individuals who are court martialed. We have our true to transfer offenders, and we have our people who are under protection in the Witness Protection Program. And we also have the District of Columbia offenders. We have those who are eligible for parole to exercise our discretion over this group, and then we also have this supervised release responsibility for those who do not have the opportunity for discretionary parole but are released on a particular mandatory date.

Len Sipes:  Right, so they come out and they serve their final 15% of their sentence in the community under supervision of our agency, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency and if there’s a problem while they’re on that 15%, we present the case to you.

Commissioner Mitchell:  That’s correct. But you’ve got to understand, the mandatory legislation is only attached to certain crimes.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Commissioner Mitchell:  And so, if you’re not convicted of a certain type of crime that carries a mandatory sentence, then what goes into effect are the guidelines that were set here in the District of Columbia.

Len Sipes:  Before August of 2000.

Commissioner Mitchell:  Correct.

Len Sipes:  Okay, but that’s very confusing to those people sitting in Honolulu going what in the name of heavens are they talking about? Let’s get back to the larger issue of parole. The concept is, in the minds of the average person out there, their principle view of parole is either through a television show or waking up to the morning headlines saying parolee commits X crime. And so we come away from that concept, I think at times, with the sense that parole is somehow bad and that throughout the country’s history, over the course of the last 20 years, parole has been severely restricted. But the interesting part of that is that there’s national research, and it’s been consistent year after year after year, people in parole do better. They recidivate less, fewer crimes, they go back to the criminal justice system far less than those who come out non-parole. So is my premise correct? Is what I just said. . .?

Commissioner Mitchell:  Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. I mean, the notion that what we have within media, certainly, when there is a sensational case that goes bad, everybody is painting it with the same brush. The interesting point that you made, and it’s very accurate, has been consistent over the years, is that more people are successful on parole than there are those that reoffend. So it is always that kind of dynamic. Well, there was a few years ago a program on A&E, they went around the country. And they conducted parole hearings within jurisdictions. I mean, it was very enlightening. I don’t know what happened to the program  itself, but it certainly pointed out how different systems work and the formalities and the level of complexity of the process.

Len Sipes:  It’s also fair to say though, that people in the criminological community over the last five, six, seven years are now saying, you know, we did away with parole in so many jurisdictions, but now, shouldn’t we have done that? Because parolees have always done much better that those just released without parole. So considering that success level, this is something that we should be taking a look at, don’t you think? This is what the criminological community is saying.

Commissioner Mitchell:  Well, there are a lot of people who would like to revisit this whole idea of the elimination of discretion or elements of discretion within paroling authorities across this country. And that has happened. And parole has certainly been given an additional level of discussion of recognition in terms of the benefit that it provides for people in terms of release.

Len Sipes:  And just making it clear, because we talked about this at the beginning of the program. People who are paroled, ordinarily speaking, they are the people who engage in programs while in prison. They’re the people who behave while they’re in prison. They’re the people who make preparations for release. They’re the people who find work. They’re the people who don’t pose an obvious risk to public safety. So there are reasons why the parole commission in any state would say okay, we believe that 50% of the sentences for this person, for this unique individual, we think it’s enough. We think we can safely release this person to the public.

Commissioner Mitchell:  Absolutely. It is an individualized process and it turns on the uniqueness of that individual in terms of how they have conducted themselves, what kinds of support systems they have available to themselves.

Len Sipes:  Okay. Robbye Braxton-Mintz, I haven’t forgotten you in terms of this entire discussion. You represent the National Institute of Corrections. You’re a Correctional Programs Specialist. You know a lot about this concept of parole. So our point here is that it’s a matter of best practices. As long as we employ those best practices, we can make informed and effective parole decisions that don’t jeopardize public safety.

Robbye Mintz:  That is correct.

Len Sipes:  And tell me about that.

Robbye Mintz:  What we’ve been trying to do at the National Institute of Corrections is to begin to try to push boards to adopt some of what we believe to be some best practices in making paroling decisions. Recently, there’s been this resurgence around reentry and second chance, and the parole boards are gatekeepers.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Robbye Mintz:  It starts with them.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Robbye Mintz:  And so, what we’ve been trying to do through our training programs and the different publications that we’ve put out is we’re asking parole boards to try to adopt a different way about making decisions, about who to release and who not to release.

Len Sipes:  Okay. But what we’re saying is that there’s state of the art ways of doing this, that protect the public, and ease the burden—I mean, look, if the person doesn’t pose a significant risk to public safety, if we can release that person earlier, and make room for a person who does pose an obvious risk to public safety, that’s in the public’s best interest. If the research shows that people released under certain circumstances recidivate less, they commit fewer crimes, they don’t go back to the prison system, so what we’re saying with the National Institute of Corrections is saying, that if you do it right, if you follow evidence-based practices, you can do it better and protect the public safety, make room for the hardened criminal who does pose an obvious risk to public safety and saves taxpayers money.

Robbye Mintz:  Absolutely. All those things are benefits to what happens when we can begin to get boards to make what we call structured, we call NIC, we call it parole structured decision making.

Len Sipes:  Okay.

Robbye Mintz:  Where there’s certain domains or areas, if you will, that are rooted in evidence, that tell us a little bit about whether a person is going to reoffend.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Robbye Mintz:  And again, by abiding by some of that, asking questions around those areas, right, we have a person who comes home to the community, who is ready to be a productive member of society. We’ve moved some space. We’ve got some space in the institution, and we’ve saved some money.

Len Sipes:  Well, tell me about the evidence-based process though, because the average person listening to this is going, wait a minute. We have heard all these stories in the newspaper about all these crimes committed by all these parolees, and now we’ve got experts from the federal government who are saying, “Ah, there’s a better way of doing this.” What is that better way of doing it? I mean, certainly, how to assess that individual. We’ve moved light years in the last ten years, in terms of getting a much better sense as to who that person really is by an objective assessment tool. So we can predict to a much greater degree whether or not that person’s going to go out and create problems or not, correct?

Robbye Mintz:  That is correct. And so what the model says, this is related to an NIC initiative, is that there are seven different domains, if you will, that if you’re going to look at, if you’re assessing whether or not an offender should be paroled, you should need to have a discussion about it. So those things include a risk assessment. What does a risk assessment tell you? You want to look at what their adjustment is in the institution. Okay, you want to look at the responsivity of the programs. It’s not just a matter of has this person taken it, this particular program, but is it the right program for them? What have they learned from it? Are they ready to practice that once they’re out in the community? And so we look at whether or not the offender is ready for change. There are things that tell us about whether or not they are ready to change their behavior, so there’s a couple of domains that we look at, that guide us toward making a better decision.

Len Sipes:  We’re more than halfway through the program. I want to reintroduce our guests today, Commissioner Cranston J. Mitchell, Vice-Chairman of the United States Parole Commission. www.justice, where you will find the commission. Robbye Braxton-Mintz, she is a Correctional Programs Specialist for the National Institute of Corrections. and what we’ll do is we’ll have resources about parole that was supplied by Donna Ledbetter of the National Institute of Corrections. We’ll have those in the show notes and have the websites within the show notes. Commissioner Mitchell, if I could go back to you. I mean, this is a tough topic, is it not? I mean, we go back and we tell the public, hey, we can do a much better job at this, for all the different reasons we’ve just discussed, and yet they’ve remained skeptical.

Commissioner Mitchell:  Well, let me say this, Len. Over the years, there have been a number of paroling authorities across this country that have done an exceptional job in terms of structuring their decision making, where they have created and developed [PH] twos that were germane to their population in terms of risk assessment and need assessment, and so they have taken some of the science to push the decision making process forward. But what has happened within the last ten, fifteen years is just this robust research that has identified those things that releasing authorities should pay attention to in terms of their level of risk, in terms of their level of need, in terms of what things are beneficial, where has success occurred and where it has not. How do you manage and monitor the behavior and the tools that are being used today, in terms of GPS, in terms of drug testing, and all of those different aspects. There are therapeutic communities that are cropping up across this country. So there’s a lot more meat on the bones, let me say, in terms of this whole issue of managing the people once they’re released.

Len Sipes:  And we go back to Robbye Braxton-Mintz from the National Institute of Corrections. There are a wide array of reentry programs now that are coupled with the paroling process. Drug treatment, mental health treatment, there’s employment programs. There’s a lot of things that are on the table now, certainly not in a, not as far as I’m concerned, in sufficient numbers. But certainly, there are a lot of programs that are on the table now that may not have been there ten, fifteen, twenty years ago that are lowering the rates of recidivism, correct?

Robbye Mintz:  That is correct. A lot of institutions now are beginning to look at the offender and the programming. When they walk in the door, we’re no longer waiting until they’re three to six months before it’s time to be released. We’re starting to look at what are their needs when they walk in that door and how do we continue that when they’re out in the community.

Len Sipes:  Right. I’m not quite sure that this is criminologically-driven, I’ve always though it’s budget-driven, because what states are saying is, is that we don’t want the guy to come back, so we’re going to use whatever tools we can to be sure the person doesn’t come back, and if those tools are drug treatment or mental health treatment, or reentry programs or housing, or whatever it is, we’re going to employ those tools because quite frankly, we can’t afford to have that person come back.

Robbye Mintz:  That is correct.

Len Sipes:  So they’re coming to the National Institute of Corrections, as the experts in corrections for the United States and for, as far as I’m concerned, for the world, they’re coming to the National Institute of Corrections and they’re saying, help us develop modalities to keep this person from coming back.

Robbye Mintz:  That is correct. As the Commissioner just said, there is a lot of research out there now that we didn’t have before and so, NIC has done things like we’ve got programs that are cognitive-based for the inmates, thinking for change, that we’re working with inmates in institutions and in the community now. So there are a lot of different resources that we now have that we didn’t have years ago.

Len Sipes:  And I’m going to come back to you, Commissioner Mitchell, because in the different states, the governors, every governor, it doesn’t matter who they are, every governor in this country is saying to themselves, “I can’t afford that level of spending on corrections that I did five years ago.” And suddenly, parole becomes now, becomes part of discussion, part of a mix that was not there five years ago. So it seems to have come full circle.

Commissioner Mitchell:  Well, what’s interesting Len is that governors have taken a more serious look at who they put in these positions. It has become such a pure public safety issue that the selection of people who do this parole business has enhanced itself in terms of the governors. And now, you start looking at this whole issue of managing, assisting the state in managing the population in terms of the cost of incarceration. It’s a tremendous cost and there are a lot of people who argue that there are people who are serving sentences, they probably could serve that sentence more successfully in the community. And so those are the kinds of dollar and cent issues that chief executives of states are asking their paroling authorities to look at. So you have to be a little bit more, in the selection process, governors again are being a lot more selective because the stakes are very high.

Len Sipes:  The stakes are extraordinarily high because if they go south, they could cost you an election. So that’s the other part of it. I mean, the public wants public safety, but by doing this, by picking the right people for parole, picking the right people for community release under programs, and not sponsored by but guided by the National Institute of Corrections, you free up prison space for those people who truly risk, poses an obvious risk to public safety. So it seems to be a win-win situation all around through the programs and through the possibility of parole.

Commissioner Mitchell:  Well, Len, what common sense tells us is that we’re going to have failures. That’s part of the business.

Len Sipes:  Yeah.

Commissioner Mitchell:  But I think we can better manage that whole process in terms of the level of risk, the types of supervision that’s required for different people depending on what their level of risk is and what their needs are. And the system has improved tremendously in those areas.

Len Sipes:  But I think that’s the bottom line behind this whole discussion, is that yeah, we’ve had decades of watching that newspaper headline saying parolee does this and parolee does that, but we have gotten 1,000 times better. It’s not perfect. I asked Donna Ledbetter to put together a show on risk and needs assessments because you get different answers from different people. Some say 80% accuracy, some people say 65% accuracy. So it’s not perfect.

Commissioner Mitchell:  It’s a tool.

Robbye Mintz:  Yeah.

Commissioner Mitchell:  It’s a tool to assist decision makers who are equipped, have gone through training at NIC, who have looked at some of the literature that’s been put out by NIC in terms of helping to develop these kinds of decision makers. So it’s a tool to assist, but you still have to use some intellectual judgment.

Len Sipes:  Sure. Oh, absolutely. And I think that’s one of the issues, again, at the heart and soul of this discussion, is that if it’s just cut and dry, if you’re going to say you’re going to serve 85% of the sentence and that’s all there is to it, then what that does is that person may not pose a risk to public safety anymore. He could be pure aged. I mean, the person could be aged out of the criminal justice system. But that person’s occupying a bed that could be used for a person who is dangerous to the public.

Commissioner Mitchell:  And that’s what a lot of state correctional systems are facing. This senior citizen population that are draining many of the coppers of the state in terms of their needs.

Len Sipes:  And Robbye Braxton-Mintz, I mean, again, we want to assure the public that you have training programs for parole commissions, you bring them together you train the various members of the parole commissions throughout the country, you provide them with orientation, you provide them with research and you provide them with guidance in terms of best practices. So it doesn’t matter if you’re in Arkansas or in California or New Mexico or Maryland, there’s a resource for you in terms of the National Institute of Corrections, of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, of the US Department of Justice that can guide you in terms of what best practices are.

Robbye Mintz:  Absolutely. And what we’ve done with the trainings is actually, we do training for parole board members, parole board chairs and parole board executives. So these are three distinct trainings. Different audiences to try to get them to focus on where they are and where we want them to be. And that training is available to everyone.

Len Sipes:  You know, I always tell this story that when I first started doing public affairs, I worked ten years for two national organizations but then I was going to work for a criminal justice agency for the first time and I called up the National Institute of Corrections, and then, I think within six weeks I was in Boulder, Colorado receiving public affairs training. And I said to myself, this is an agency that is very informal and I expressed a need, and they fulfilled the need. So I’ve always had a fond feeling for the National Institute of Corrections ever since then, because I didn’t have to fill in ten tons of paperwork, I didn’t have to wait a year and a half. Commissioner Mitchell, has that ever been your experience? You’ve worked with the National Institute of Corrections. NIC is a fairly informal bunch of folks who seem to get to the heart of the matter quickly.

Commissioner Mitchell:  Oh, absolutely. I mean, there’s this network out there in terms of the profession. And we seem to be, all the emerging issues that are facing the criminal justice system, NIC has their finger on the pulse. And they bring together some of the best minds in many of these different areas especially to develop some type of framework to address the problem. To give states and other entities information and systems to assist them in terms of doing a better job.

Len Sipes:  And a way of exchanging information between members of the parole commissions and parole commissioners.

Commissioner Mitchell:  Absolutely, yeah. There is this collaboration that takes place, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch when you’ve got the right decision makers at the table.

Len Sipes:  Okay, we have a minute and a half left. What is it that we want to say to a citizen who’s listening to this and says, ah, you’re all a bunch of – this is a bunch of malarkey. I just want these people to stay in prison and not get out, and I don’t like this concept of parole. It’s early release and you do the crime, you do the time. Is what we said throughout the course of the program, Commissioner Mitchell, has been sufficient to satisfy that person that there may be a better way of managing resources?

Commissioner Mitchell:  Well, I think it hopefully provides additional thought direction for thought in terms of, we’re faced with truth in sentencing legislation and truth in sentencing laws across this country, but still, there is this discretionary piece that has tremendous value and it holds people accountable, and it provides great opportunity and there is this whole emerging constituency in terms of victims. And the victims’ involvement and input into the process, this is National Victims’ Week. And so, it just further enhances the whole process as it relates to the issue of parole.

Len Sipes:  And we are saying, Robbye, that the victims of crime need to be part of this process, lock, stock and barrel. Not just in terms of notification as to what’s happening with that offender, but the ability to go in and testify, the ability to go in and let the parole commissioner or the parole commission, to let them know that the harm that the person has done to themselves and to their families.

Robbye Mintz:  Absolutely. Victim advocate groups are always a part, should always be a part, of the parole decisions. So yeah, they’re definitely involved.

Len Sipes:  But I keep having this sense in my mind that the person goes in at age 20 and now, they’re 50, and it’s 30 years later and that person probably doesn’t represent a risk to public safety anymore, and can be released and that bed can be freed up for a person who does pose a risk to public safety. That’s the thing that comes across my mind.

Commissioner Mitchell:  And so, looking at him at age 30, after he’s been 20 years, is a better time to look in terms of what kind of risk does this person pose, has maturity set in, you know, and those changes occurred?

Len Sipes:  I’m really proud of having this program today, doing this program today. I’m really proud to have both of you. Our guests today have been Commissioner Cranston J. Mitchell, Vice-Chairman of the US Parole Commission, Robbie Braxton-Mintz, Correctional Programs Specialist for the National Institute of Corrections. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We’re really appreciative of all the input that you’ve provided us in terms of your emails and phone calls, and even an occasional letter, providing suggestions for future programs and comments and criticisms. And please, have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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