A Public At Risk: A look at South Carolina’s Broken Probation and Parole System
A project of the Center on Media, Crime & Justice
and Criminal Justice Journalists
University of Mississippi
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Crime Reporting Case Study: Probation and Parole
“Criminals free on probation or parole kill, rob and rape all too often in a state where repeat offenders routinely are released into a system that is too under-manned and ill-equipped to maintain control.”
Doug Pardue, Glenn Smith
The Post and Courier
It's estimated that two-thirds of America's criminals under correctional supervision are living in the community, not in prisons. According to research by the Pew Center on the States, one in 45 American adults is on probation or parole.
More than a year before the Pew Center's study was released; investigative reporters Doug Pardue and Glenn Smith of The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina began looking into why their state seemed to have so many cases of violent crimes being committed by people who had been paroled or placed on probation.
Pardue, who also edited the five-part series, “Law and Disorder,” said the first thing to overcome in tackling this story was the “it's not new” bias. Stories on individual crimes often note that the accused person was on probation or parole, but journalists rarely take a systemic look at how the justice system decides who should be in custody and for how long.
“I can't tell you how many times I've started to look at something and a reporter says, 'We've already done that.' Lots of people touch on lots of issues, but often there's not a thorough look. We saw very few cases where journalists took on all the contributing institutions to really investigate the issue,” Pardue said.
Pardue and Smith spent more than six months trying to determine what was at the heart of what appeared to be a serious breakdown in South Carolina's system for handling people on probation and parole. They found those tasked with supervising inmates in the community to be dealing with overwhelmingly large caseloads and a lack of sometimes basic resources, judges struggling to balance the need to alleviate the strain on overcrowded prisons and a desire to protect citizens, and story after story of victims who paid the price for the system's failures.
Too many to monitor
Probation and parole agents are on the front lines of the battle to control those inmates whom the state has returned to the community under supervision. In South Carolina, the newspaper reported that each agent has an average caseload of more than 109 offenders – that's 34 more than the recommended national average. In one instance, the reporters found two agents who each must keep track of about 181 people – 106 more than the national standard.
“These poor officers; in most cases, they don't get to help people break the cycle of crime – the reason why they got into the business in the first place,” Smith said.
Through multiple interviews with agents, Smith found that the social worker function of the position – the opportunity to connect offenders with jobs and services that might help them avoid a life of crime – is largely a thing of the past. Agent Kescia Holmes told the paper she took the job hoping to make a difference, but her heavy caseload has offered a brutal reality check.
“I know I can't save 150 people,” Holmes, 36, said. “I used to be real hard on myself, more than anything. But then I just came to the realization that there's no way a person comes in and sits with me for a period of, at the most, 15 or 20 minutes and all of a sudden I can change their world. I can't do that.”
Smith said the state's top probation and parole officials were reluctant to cooperate on the project, so the rank and file agents were invaluable in fully reporting the story. Smith says their anecdotes made the series.
The Post and Courier's stories placed little blame on police and probation agents for the role they play in trying to handle problem criminals, but the reporting was somewhat less sympathetic to the judiciary.
The paper reported that “between 2003 and 2007, less than half of the 64,970 criminals arrested for violating the terms of their releases had their probation revoked by a judge.”
At the same time, Pardue and Smith made it clear that the sheer volume of cases makes it difficult for judges to be thoughtful and thorough. The paper noted that often, “in just minutes, [judges] must decide who gets another shot at probation and who should be shipped off to prison.”
Factor in the very real obstacles presented by the state's overcrowded prisons and the annual cost of incarceration versus probation (in 2007, $14,093 per inmate in prison vs. $1,080 per offender on regular probation), and it's not difficult to see why judges often err on the side of giving offenders another chance.
It may also be that the judges are just playing the odds. According to the paper, “state officials boast an overall 65 percent success rate for people completing their supervised release time without repeat criminal activity, but that leaves 35 percent who might continue to prey on their communities.”
“I live in fear all the time of not putting someone in jail who should be put in jail and then having them go out and commit one of these horrible crimes,” Circuit Judge Thomas Hughston said.
Throughout the series, the system's inability to protect the public adequately was made apparent through the stories of more than a dozen victims. One of the most compelling was that of Julianne Blakeley. The 63-year-old woman was found dead, raped and murdered by a man who had been released on parole two months earlier. It was the third time in five years that the suspect had been freed on probation or parole, and each time he went on to commit more and more serious crimes.
“It was very easy to see early on there are great human stories to tell,” Pardue said.
The series strove to go beyond simply outlining the problems and tried to offer potential solutions as well. For example, the reporters looked at states that had abolished parole in an attempt to tackle the problems inherent in the system. They talked with Professor Ronald Wright at Wake Forest University, who says approximately 20 states have abolished parole. Most have also adopted sentencing reform to prompt judges to impose shorter and more equitable sentences. Without that, Wright says prisons would all too quickly become even more overcrowded.
In addition, the reporters spoke with South Carolina's attorney general, who advocates allowing most non-violent criminals to go free under the control of a judge who could lock them up at any time for violating the conditions of release. They talked with others who simply recommended more funding for the probation and parole agency.
Pardue says the series had immediate statewide impact. In the aftermath of their reporting, the state's two top legislative officials–the leaders of both the senate and the house–said that the stories provided a roadmap for what needed to be done to solve the system's problems. Pardue says they promised they would push through bills to correct the situation.
But the economy took a nosedive soon after the series was published in August 2008.
“The budget crisis killed the desire to make changes. Probation and parole are in worse shape now than when we reported the series,” Pardue said.
How they did it
Smith and Pardue worked together on the project, in and around other stories. After about 30 years of investigative reporting and editing, Pardue says he finds team reporting is generally the best approach. For example, Smith is a veteran crime reporter.
“It's often good to have a beat expert plus a pure investigative reporter, and that way the two can work together from their strengths,” Pardue said. He also points out the added benefit of having someone to keep your spirits up during a sometimes tedious investigative process.
Though the series was fairly data rich, both Smith and Pardue commented on the difficulty of finding sources for statistics on this topic.
“We mined what we could out of federal sources, (such as) the Bureau of Justice Statistics, but there doesn't seem to be a central clearinghouse for information,” Smith said.
At the state level, Smith found some of the key data were online. For example, the probation and parole board provided information on the inmates under its supervision, as did the corrections department, but Pardue was frustrated by not being able to say exactly how many people on probation commit more major crimes. In the end, that forced the two reporters to focus the series on people vs. statistics.
“What I liked best about the series is that it really took you out to the front lines to the people doing the work and the people affected by the work,” Smith said.
That desire to show and tell led Smith to produce a video story which detailed a new strategy probation and parole officers were using to crack down on violators. The approach involved pairing police with agents on warrant sweeps and home visits. The video was published on the paper's Web site and promoted in the paper along with a map showing where all the inmates under supervision in the city were located.
“It's always helpful to hear from a few people in their own voices, helpful to see people in action trying to do their jobs,” said Pardue.
Pardue says the paper's investigative team has a commitment to continue reporting on this topic. “Follow up is the most critical thing to make sure you accomplish what you set out to do. Investigative reporting is trying to fix things,” Pardue said.
Pardue also believes this story can and should be done in other markets. He suggests starting with a search through your newsroom archives for stories that indicate a criminal got out of prison and victimized someone innocent. “You have to shock yourself first, make yourself realize this really is a problem. Not a bureaucratic problem of how many officers per inmate, you have to start seeing it in the eyes of innocent victims.”
A day in court
Smith believes a strong story could be done by simply spending a day or two in court watching how probation violations are handled. The paper's series included an anecdote about a police officer who sat through 43 probation hearings one day to see what happened. All but three violators remained on probation or were set free with no additional reporting requirements.
Another idea comes from one of the prosecutors interviewed for the series. Seventh Circuit Solicitor Trey Gowdy said, “You would be hard-pressed to find a serious violent crime in your jurisdiction or my jurisdiction where you can't find the point on the suspect's rap sheet where he or she should have been in prison and not on the street to commit a crime.” It would be easy enough to take five or six high-profile crimes in your area and do just that to help illustrate the impact of a faulty system.
Scrutinizing second chances
Smith says one thing he would have liked to do for the series they produced is to track over time some of those on probation or parole. “The idea is to look at someone who gets a second chance, follow them for several months to see what happens,” Smith suggests.
That idea dovetails with something Pardue wants the investigative unit to pursue – a deeper look at the corrections system as a whole. For example, Smith will be exploring what impact the corrections department has on inmates – what are they like when they're released from prison, what kind of rehabilitation actually occurs inside and how hard is it to make a life when you have to deal with issues such as carrying an ID that says “released prisoner?” In addition, reporters might check on how states and localities use aid under a new federal law called the Second Chance Act, which supports programs that help former inmates re-enter society successfully.
Smith says reporters who tell these stories are doing important work.
“Why tell the story? People's lives depend on it. As state budgets shrink, there's more pressure to take people out of prison and put them on the street. If the state can't handle them effectively, people are going to get hurt,” Smith said.
Crime Reporting Case Study: Resource Guide for Reporting on Prisoner Reentry, Probation and Parole
Alexander, M., & VanBenschoten, S. (2008). Evolution of supervision in the federal probation system. Federal Probation, 72(2), 15-21.
Petersilia, Joan (2004). What Works in Prisoner Reentry? Reviewing and Questioning the Evidence. Federal Probation, 68(2), 4-9.
Taxman, F.S., Young, D. & Byrne, J. (2004). Transforming offender reentry into public safety: Lessons from OJP's Reentry Partnership Initiative. Justice Policy and Research, 5(2),101-128.
The Pew Center on the States (2009). One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections. http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/report_detail.aspx?id=49382
Travis, J. (2000). But They All Come Back: Rethinking Prisoners Reentry. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice.
Lynch, J., and Sabol, W. (2001). Crime Policy Report: Prisoner Reentry in Perspective. The Urban Institute. http://www.urban.org/pdfs/410213_reentry.pdf
Solomon, A. L., Kachnowski, V., & Bhati, A.(2005). Does Parole Work? Analyzing the Impact of Postprison Supervision on Rearrest Outcomes.
American Correctional Association
American Probation and Parole Association
Association of Paroling Authorities International
National Institute of Corrections
New York State Parole Project – Vera Institute
Reentry – U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs
Serious and Violent Offender Re-Entry Initiative
United States Parole Commission
OTHER RESOURCES (cont.)
Prisoner Reentry Institute, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
“Oakland Police Shootings Stoke Criticism of Parole Oversight”
Los Angeles Times
March 24, 2009
by Andrew Blankstein and Maria L. LaGanga
“Allegations of Impropriety Surround Parole Commission”
May 26, 2009
by Joe Stephens
New York Times Op-Ed
October 28, 2007
by Jeffrey A. Meyer and Linda Ross Meyer
Quinnipiac University School of Law professors
Joan Petersilia, Ph.D.
Professor, Criminology, Law & Society
University of California, Irvine
Co-Director, UCI Center on Evidence-Based Corrections
University of California, Irvine
James M. Byrne, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology
University of Massachusetts – Lowell
A copy of the study can be accessed here.