The Changing Role of Parole in the US-DC Public Safety Radio

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[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, our program today is on the changing role of parole, and we’re honored to have Patricia Cushwa. She is a commissioner of the US Parole Commission. The web address there:, which stands for “United States Parole Commission.” Pat Cushwa, welcome to D.C. Public Safety.

Pat Cushwa: Good to see you again, Len.

Len Sipes: Alright, Pat and I go way back, full disclosure. She was chair of the Parole Commission for the State of Maryland when I worked as the director of public information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. We had a load of correctional and law enforcement agencies, and Pat was chair of the Parole Commission, so Pat and I go way back. Pat is what I consider to be a pioneer within the criminal justice system because, quite frankly, it’s a male-dominated field, and there simply weren’t too many women executives around when I was with the Maryland Department of Public Safety. And Pat Cushwa was not only the chair of the Parole Commission; she was a leader in the criminal justice system in the State of Maryland, as she continues to be a leader with the United States Parole Commission. Pat, did I get all that right?

Pat Cushwa: I think you did, and we’re going back twenty years, and yes, when I came in to Parole in Maryland, there were very few women there – one other person on the board – and then I got to be chair, as you know. And the world changed for me and, I hope, for the better for Maryland’s criminal justice system.

Len Sipes: Well, you did an extraordinarily good job. You have the grace and the knowledge to smooth over ruffled feathers. I think that was one of the things you did extraordinarily well. You treated everybody with kindness and courtesy, but at the same time, you made some extraordinarily good and hard decisions with the Parole Commission, both within the State of Maryland and with the US Parole Commission. What was it like, switching over from the State of Maryland to the US Parole Commission?

Pat Cushwa: Well, as you know, I did serve in the State Senate in the State of Maryland, so state government was a big love of mine, but after twelve years there, getting a presidential appointment through my US senators really has been the capstone of my parole career. And what you learn in the states really informs what you’re doing with the federal government. It’s all local, it’s like politics. It’s all local.

Len Sipes: Everything’s local. Everything’s local. And what was it like? Did people…? Did you have an issue, did you have any issues being a woman leader in the correctional system, in the parole system? Because Parole had to interact with so many other agencies, so it wasn’t in isolation. You were part of the Maryland Department of Public Safety, so I sat there many a staff meeting with all these agency heads, and you were the epitome of reason. And again, you had this ability, a lovely public-relations ability and sense of personal class, but what was it like, being a woman in charge of a major criminal justice agency? Were there any issues for you?

Pat Cushwa: Yes, there were some big challenges, and I don’t think I knew until I got there how many that there would be, and I came into parole just as women were starting to break glass ceilings or break prison doors everywhere. At the end of the day – and I think you’re right – it’s how you communicate with people, it’s your business. There was a lot of skepticism at first. I really felt I had to prove myself. But if you’re a woman at the table, and you’re able to speak up, and you know what you’re talking about, and you work just a little bit more, once you gain the respect of your male colleagues, then they really come forward and help you. And that is what happened.

Len Sipes: So many women I’ve spoken to within the criminal justice system have told that it’s been a little difficult for them, that getting accepted was a bit of an issue. So, I don’t want to belabor this point, but I just want to acknowledge the fact that you were a pioneer in terms of coming in and being commissioner and eventually being the chair of the Parole Commission of the State of Maryland. So, somebody had to like you, somebody had to respect you to give you that responsibility.

Pat Cushwa: Well, I was the first woman in Maryland to chair the Parole Commission. I was the first woman in my hometown of Williamsport to be elected to a town council.

Len Sipes: Williamsport, Maryland.

Pat Cushwa: Yeah, little Williamsport, Maryland. But yes, I was made chair by Governor Glendening, who actively was recruiting women for cabinet positions, and he was looking for somebody with administrative experience – if you’re going to run an agency of some ninety people. And mostly victims’ issues were coming into Parole, and everybody thought it would be the death of Parole. Victims’ issues saved Parole. And I had started a spouse abuse agency in Washington County called Casa.

Len Sipes: Yes.

Pat Cushwa: And he knew I was very involved in women’s issues, domestic violence, and in victim issues, and it worked out well, both for victims’ issues and for me. And as you know, Len – and we do go back, you travelled the state without our Lt. Governor – people had bad ideas about where domestic violence was. They were focusing on a city, and you get into the rural areas, you get where there’re sex offenses, incest. You’re looking at rural areas and where you should put money, so policy became a big part of it, but not a lot of money in the state – you better allocate your resources correctly.

Len Sipes: Okay. We were talking today, the title of today’s show is The Changing Role of Parole in the United States. One of the things that I find a bit interesting is that, if you take a look at data over the course of years on how well people do when they come out of the prison system, there is no question that those paroled versus those not paroled – either mandatorily released or come out under supervised release but they’re not paroled, they basically serve a percentage of their sentence until the state or the federal government can no longer legally hold them – and then they come out and the people paroled versus the people non-paroled, there is a substantial difference in every single year. I’ve seen, of data that I’ve seen, there’s a substantial difference. Parolees do better than those not paroled, yet the dichotomy is that, for years, parole was almost a dirty word.

Pat Cushwa: And it’s still almost a dirty word in some areas, but you know, what parole – the old parole is gone and it should have been. There wasn’t risk-assessment, there were people just trying to make judgments based on their past careers. Nowadays, the sexy new word for parole is “reentry.”

Len Sipes: Is “offender reentry,” right.

Pat Cushwa: Yes, it absolutely is. And you’re right, in state and in the federal government, people that go out under parole, even if it’s only two years at the end of their sentence, you have somebody to supervise and guide.

Len Sipes: Right.

Pat Cushwa: They’re not coming back with violent crimes. So the buck has to stop somewhere. Without a parole agency looking at what happens right before release and right after, you’re just going to have recidivism.

Len Sipes: The question is whether or not you want the person supervised upon release or not, or assisted upon release or not. That’s the bottom line. We should explain what parole is, because there are going to be different people listening to this program. Parole is a discretionary release from prison. A mandatory release is, you’ve hit the time that a state can legally hold you – that plus whatever credits you get in prison – you have to let the person go. So, there’s a difference between saying, “I release you at fifty percent of your sentence, but I release you with these conditions: substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, you have to make restitutions,” those sorts of things. So, there, generally speaking, seems to be conditions attached to the parole for the privilege of getting out before you could legally get out. Is that right?

Pat Cushwa: Yes, that’s right. You’re making an important distinction, because any time you pick up a newspaper, it will say, you know, “Parolee on a rampage.” Most of the time, well, sixty, seventy percent of the time, that person has not been released by parole.

Len Sipes: Right.

Pat Cushwa: They’ve been released through law, through the prison system.

Len Sipes: Right.

Pat Cushwa: So, “parolee” became a generic term.

Len Sipes: Yes.

Pat Cushwa: And people shouldn’t use it and they do, and it’s a big, I think, a public relations issue to let people know how people are getting out and what is a safer way to get out.

Len Sipes: Right.

Pat Cushwa: So, ninety-eight percent of people in state and federal prisons are going to be released at some period, no matter who they’re released by. So, you know, “do the crime, do the time” means do eighty-five percent of the time, or get some good credits to get out. I think where parole is better is, some of the worst people in the system know how to do time. People leave them alone. You know, they don’t want to be near you, they’re afraid of you, so you can have a perfectly clean institutional record, no disciplinary actions. That doesn’t mean that you’re not a risk for reoffending, and that’s what parole does. The federal parole board was the first to ever have risk-assessment, the salient factor score, so that you have something to guide you. Just like the Sentencing Commission has guidelines, we have guidelines based on the person’s personal history, as well as the severity and the type of the crime. So, a parole commission can say, “This person should get every bit, every day that we can get until we’re ready to supervise, because prison is for people like this.”

Len Sipes: The other thing that I do want to clarify is that, at the federal level, parole ended. Parole ended when?

Pat Cushwa: 1987.

Len Sipes: Okay. And so now, offenders, when they go to a federal prison, they serve eighty-five percent of their sentence and, interestingly enough, offenders within Washington, D.C., when they’re committed – when they’re convicted of a D.C. Code violation, they also go to federal prison and you have jurisdiction over them as well.

Pat Cushwa: Exactly. We have jurisdiction in the federal system, anybody who committed their crime before 1987.

Len Sipes: Right.

Pat Cushwa: So, there are people and Mafia figures, big figures, big crime areas where the conviction doesn’t happen until after ’87, they’re still under our jurisdiction, and we have about 2,500 still in federal parole. And in D.C., it was 2,000. Anybody, any D.C. Code offender who committed a crime before the year 2000.

Len Sipes: Right, August of 2000.

Pat Cushwa: Yes. And then we took over supervised release, and that’s where we work with CSOSA, with your supervision agency sometimes.

Len Sipes: Well, and that’s the other point that I wanted to emphasize, is that even though parole is ended, even though that they are coming out by law at eighty-five percent, we or federal probation, we supervise these individuals, and if there’s an issue with that last fifteen percent, you are the final arbitrator of issues.

Pat Cushwa: Yes. With D.C. supervised release, those that are going out under new law that were sentenced after ’87, the courts oversee that part of the supervision. They have to be paroled for US Parole to oversee on that level.

Len Sipes: Ah, so even the “mandatories” go back to the courts for…

Pat Cushwa: After ’87, yes.

Len Sipes: After ’87, okay.

Pat Cushwa: But if you look at our… There are about 22 thousand federal offenders that are out on release —

Len Sipes: Right.

Pat Cushwa: — that we have jurisdiction over. That’s our jurisdiction. And I think the good thing is, here you ask about recidivism – they’ve done, they’ve had careful supervision, they’ve done longer sentences. The last I checked, there were only 300 warrants out on 22 thousand people, so you’re looking at about a two percent recidivism. In your business, you know, that’s darn good.

Len Sipes: That’s wonderful. Alright, so you’ve been chair of the Parole Commission in the State of Maryland. You are a commissioner with the United States Parole Commission at the federal level. You’ve seen everything. This has been your bread and butter; you’ve been in a leadership role. And I’ve mentioned before the difference between the recidivism rates of people on parole versus people who are legally released, they’re mandatorily released. You know, so parole obviously has a role, and now, you know, the states are really complaining that they can no longer afford to build more prisons. Parole is now coming back in vogue. Parole, philosophically, people are saying, “Hey, they do better under parole, and we can’t continue to build prisons in the way that we have, and we do want to be sure that we have the prison beds available for the violent offenders and the people who pose a clear and present risk to public safety. We’ve got to be sure that those that don’t fall into that category are somehow, some way released earlier, under supervision, and that includes paroles.” So it’s been a bit of a 180 degree turn in the ship of state and public opinion in terms of the concept of parole.

Pat Cushwa: I don’t think people ever like the concept of early release, but I think you hit the point there. The difference between violent and non-violent offenders. The public overwhelmingly would rather see a drug… druggie treated and go on the streets clean than to go into a prison and come out and go through the same old cycle again. And I think, again, I think that parole will begin to exist. It is a changing role. There’re going to be review boards, there’re going to be prison safety valve boards. They’re going to go out and they’re going to perform a reentry role. And I think that you’re going to see parole boards across the nation changing their names to reflect what they honestly do, that “parole” no longer really says what it is they’re doing.

Len Sipes: Yeah. It’s not going to stop newspapers from claiming “parolee does this” or “parolee does that,” but I understand what you’re trying to say. Will break now. We’re just about half-way though the program. This program is flying by very quickly. Ladies and gentlemen, our guest today is Patricia Cushwa. She is a commissioner with the United States Parole Commission – www.justice (J-U-S-T-I-C-E). gov/uspc, which stands for “United States Parole Commission.” Pat Cushwa has been around as commissioner of the Parole Board for the State of Maryland, as well as a commissioner with the United States Parole Commission.  She has done just about everything there is in terms of parole. So, do you think we should rename it – to pick it up from where we were before the break – instead of “Parole,” it should be “The United States Board of Reentry”?

Pat Cushwa: Well, I think perhaps in the case of the federal system, where parole has been abolished and we’re doing supervised release and beginning to look at non-violent offenders, yes, it should be “The US Board of Sentence…” “The US Sentence Review Board” is what I would call it. It’s that you’re reviewing a portion of a sentence to decide what is going to be the best public safety release.

Len Sipes: What about at the state level? I mean, do we do away with the name “parole” and go back to “reentry”?

Pat Cushwa: Some states have. I would say there are probably twelve to fourteen states who have prison review boards who call themselves by what they’re actually doing. And you shouldn’t be playing games, but you should label yourself as you are, and if ninety percent of what you’re doing is not a discretionary release, why are you claiming you’re doing it?

Len Sipes: Right. But I mean, that’s that heart and soul of people’s objection to parole. It’s the fact that the offender goes to prison for a five-year sentence – and let’s just say he’s a burglar –and he does only fifty percent of the sentence, maybe two and a half years. Maybe he does two years on five, which is not unusual for a quote-unquote non-violent offender. He comes out, even under supervision, you know, there’s still every possibility that he could be rearrested, he could be reconvicted, and we can have somebody standing there and saying, “Why in the name of heavens was this person with a criminal history before this burglary, why in the name of heavens was this person released early?” And that’s a very legitimate question. I mean, if we’re talking about victims and being sensitive to victims’ issues, that’s a very legitimate question.

Pat Cushwa: Well, you went through this with state parole, and probably that was one of your bigger challenges in Maryland, is trying to get these issues across. You have to look at non-violent offenders and assess them and release them differently so the violent offenders stay in. When you meet with victims, when you talk to victims, most of the time, in Maryland, if we say, “If we parole them, they’re going to go out with three years’ supervision and they’re going to be on this kind of a registry with stay-away orders, or we can say no and they’ll go out through the prison system and there won’t be any supervision. What do you want?” Well…

Len Sipes: Right. Right. But that needs to be explained. It needs to be explained in a way that the average person can understand, and also making room for the truly dangerous. I mean, somebody suggested to me some time ago that we have to distinguish between those people who are a pain in the butt to society versus those people who are dangerous to society. And we cannot afford – and states are saying this, all throughout the United States. I mean, they’re being abundantly clear that we cannot continue the massive prison-building program that we’ve had, thus we come to a conundrum. How do we protect public safety and not spend massive amounts of tax-paid dollars to build more prisons, and how do we do it in such a way that increases the odds for public safety? We can’t say “eliminate crime” because there are no guarantees under community supervision. Parole and objective risk instruments, and experienced people making experienced decisions, seem to be in our best interest.

Pat Cushwa: Yes, and a lot of these people have to come off the street even for a short amount of time. So, it could be a half-way house that you’re putting somebody in. I think that it’s “build it and they will come.” You could build prisons forever and you could fill them up with people, and let’s just say a lot of them are not even people that even should be in a prison. Prisons inherited – when we got away from civil commitment, guess who got people with mental challenges?

Len Sipes: Right.

Pat Cushwa: And certainly, a prison is to punish people and put them away, and help if you can, but they are not capable of doing mental health treatment. They’re not drug treatment facilities.

Len Sipes: Part of this philosophy is that, if you want parole, a counselor in a prison system sits down with you and says, “Alright, John, you have a history of mental illness, you have to be in this program. You have a history of substance abuse, you have to complete this particular program. It wouldn’t really hurt if you got your GED and your plumbing certificate. And oh, by the way, don’t act out in prison, don’t hurt anybody, don’t threaten anybody; go along with the rules.”  So that when that person is up for parole and they come to you, then they are saying, “Hey, I got my GED, I got my plumbing certificate, I completed these programs and I’m more than willing to complete these programs out in the community,” you say, “Okay, either we’ll reconsider you so you can finish up your programming, or parole you at the fifty percent level, but you have these conditions.”

Pat Cushwa: Exactly. Well, you’re pointing out something that people often overlook. It’s that parole can be a management tool within a prison. How do you take a prison with 3,000 men in it, or 2,000 women, and get compliance? You know, they’ve got the stick – what’s the carrot? So, if you behave well, if you do right, if you go in these programs, the carrot is, you’ll get out a little bit early. And it helps the prison system. So, parole and the prison administration can work very well together.

Len Sipes: It seems a relationship made in heaven, because those of us who have been in prisons – and I know I have, hundreds of times; you have, hundreds of times – we know how chaotic and how difficult running a prison can be. If you have hope for the future and you have hope of improving yourself, that creates a much calmer correctional institution, which is really important for those people who work in correctional institutions to keep it as calm and as orderly as humanly possible. So, the parole and the possibility of parole increases that level of safety within prison systems.

Pat Cushwa: It’s a good way for oversight. You’ve got somebody completely getting a file ready, looking at somebody, “Will you be parole-ready?” Then you have parole officials, who go and say what you said: “We’ll let you out in two years if you do this, if you do B, if you do C.”

Len Sipes: Right.

Pat Cushwa: So, all along the line, they’re preparing people to go out to earn some money and to not lapse back into crime, because even if you are locked up for a non-violent drug crime, if you’re desperate for drugs when go out, you’re going to do something violent.

Len Sipes: Right.

Pat Cushwa: So, you’ve got to have somebody who understands the system overseeing the system. And “parole,” “sentence review,” “reentry,” whatever terminology you’re using, is reducing recidivism. You know, it’s costs, but human costs as well as dollar costs. We can’t just go on the way we’ve been going on. And I’m hoping that you will have us back, because we have just finished a pilot program that is looking at how we can handle non-violent offenders differently. It’s, when we put people back in, how long we have to keep them, what they’re doing to get them ready, and this will be the first study on recidivism that’s really done with only an urban population. You see all these state-wide studies, and they’re wonderful. This is going to be with only D.C. Code offenders, so we’re going to get a good snapshot in time of evidence-based program for D.C. Code [PH] then.

Len Sipes: The offenders who are under our supervision —

Pat Cushwa: Absolutely.

Len Sipes: — Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, my agency. Okay. And you’ve got preliminary – a sense as to how that’s turning out?

Pat Cushwa: We sure do. We’re looking at 800 cases that we will have done in a year and a half. The recidivism rate is drastically lower. They’re serving four months instead of sixteen months. We’re able to get them out and keep them out. We have – the people that do come back are for low-level violations. They’re not reporting, they haven’t connected with the program, they’re not coming back with new offenses. And we have avoided about fifteen million dollars in bed days at the jail and supervision costs by doing this.

Len Sipes: I’m confused. Are these people who were on supervision and are close to going back, and you…?

Pat Cushwa: No. Okay, these are people who we put back in prison who may have been on supervised release —

Len Sipes: Right…

Pat Cushwa: — who weren’t in compliance. They’re all administrative violators.

Len Sipes: Right.

Pat Cushwa: These are not people who’ve committed new crimes.

Len Sipes: Understood.

Pat Cushwa: They’re people who were released —

Len Sipes: Okay.

Pat Cushwa: — or who were on supervised release through the courts, that never did go into jail —

Len Sipes: Alright.

Pat Cushwa: — that we are now handling because they were having low-level violations.

Len Sipes: And what did you do, what did the US Parole Commission do?

Pat Cushwa: We started a program that we call SIS, Short Intervention for Success.

Len Sipes: Right.

Pat Cushwa: Very similar to Project Hope out of Hawaii.

Len Sipes: Ah…!

Pat Cushwa: That we’re looking at drug offenders, we’re looking at people who don’t know how to get to an appointment at time.

Len Sipes: Right.

Pat Cushwa: We’re looking at people that we’re putting back in for sixteen months, like we did with the old Federal Offender, but not getting bad recidivism, we’re not getting good results.

Len Sipes: So this is something that happens in prison, or is this principally something that happens in the community upon release?

Pat Cushwa: It happens in the community upon release, and then US Parole would take these D.C. Code offenders, along with CSOSA, and we would lock them up because they weren’t reporting, because they were using drugs and testing positive.

Len Sipes: Right.

Pat Cushwa: And we were putting them back in a prison for sixteen months, and they were sitting in a jail for five months, waiting for a hearing.

Len Sipes: Right.

Pat Cushwa: And it wasn’t doing any good. So we called in Dr. Jim Austen, who does research.

Len Sipes: Yes. The famous Jim Austen.

Pat Cushwa: Very famous Jim Austen, that we wanted a pilot program that we wanted evidence-based. What could we do that would stop recidivism, what could we do to shorten a term that would actually help instead of hurt the recidivism rate?

Len Sipes: So they would come out of the correctional institution earlier, be under enhanced supervision by my agency.

Pat Cushwa: Exactly.

Len Sipes: Ah, and that enhanced supervision and that enhanced provision of services reduced the rate of recidivism.

Pat Cushwa: And when your agency said to our agency, “You know, this woman” – there are women in the system – “is not reporting, she isn’t paying her rent,” in the old days, we’d put her in for sixteen months. Now, we’re going to connect her with your agency, we’re going to put out a warrant and do a hearing within seven days instead of seven weeks.

Len Sipes: Right.

Pat Cushwa: And we’re going to say, “What does this person need? Does she need drug treatment, does she need a job?”

Len Sipes: Right.

Pat Cushwa: We will maybe put her out on time served and connect her with what she needs to be successful.

Len Sipes: Okay.

Pat Cushwa: And rather than the jail being overcrowded and the courts screaming, you empty half the beds and put these people where they need to be.

Len Sipes: They get the supervision and the services that they need to be successful.

Pat Cushwa: Exactly.

Len Sipes: And that’s able to lower the recidivism rate considerably in terms of your comparison group.

Pat Cushwa: Oh, oh, yes.

Len Sipes: It’s amazing.

Pat Cushwa: Yes, and we’re going to come back. Dr. Austen has the report ready; he’s going to present it at a national conference and Dr. Calvin Johnson, your researcher, has been working with him, been a great cooperation, so that we can both say, “What can we do that’s better?”

Len Sipes: That’s great.

Pat Cushwa: Instead of pointing fingers at one another, we’re kind of holding hands.

Len Sipes: Do we do that…?

Pat Cushwa: No, no…!

Len Sipes: Alright. You mentioned women offenders a little while ago, and I think this is extraordinarily important. What the parole commission can do is to do surgical slices and dices, depending upon that kind… that individual’s problems, whether it be alcohol, whether it be mental health, whether it be – in some cases, women offenders, because women offenders have their own unique needs and their own unique trauma, and we’ve documented that extensively here at the national level, at the local level here at CSOSA. So, with women offenders or with any other sort of “surgical interventions,” the Parole Commission can tailor programs specifically for that individual. And to try to be, again, evidence-based and as successful as humanly possible.

Pat Cushwa: Yes. We call them now “justice-involved women,” and up until very recently, there was nothing that assessed women differently – the fact that they seldom ever come back, that they don’t come back with violent crimes – yet we were holding them to standards that were based only on males. And we’re not starting new risk-assessment, and CSOSA, I have to say, your agency, with its yearly program, with its Dress for Success, with its emphasis on job-placement, has really helped Parole to realize what we can do. So, yes, we’re just now – and thank God – we’re looking at women in the federal system. That’s our next focus.

Len Sipes: This is a terrible question because we only have a couple of seconds left. You and I have been through incidents in the state of Maryland where a person has gone out under parole and committed another crime, and that’s something, I just want to say, at the end of it, that neither you or I – it’s never cavalier. We do feel it personally, correct?

Pat Cushwa: Len, a commissioner once said to me, “When do I start to feel comfortable about making these decisions?” I said, “Well, the day you do is the day you retire, because…” No, there’s nothing worse than to think that somebody that’s been released, no matter how, is going to go out and endanger one of our citizens.

Len Sipes: There’s no guarantee even [PH] on community supervision. There are no complete guarantees.

Pat Cushwa: We can just do better.

Len Sipes: Our guest today has been Patricia Cushwa. Pat, I really appreciate you stopping by and look forward to you, in the future. Patricia Cushwa, commissioner US Parole Commission, www.justice (J-U-S-T-I-C-E).gov/uspc, it stands for “United States Parole Commission.” Ladies and gentlemen, this is D.C. Public Safety. We really appreciate all the comments we get from you, and even criticisms. And we want everybody to have themselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]