Countless Americans believe they know better than parole boards, ready to second-guess decisions based on limited information gleaned just from news accounts, criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University writes in USA Today. They believe they can tell if a convicted predator is dangerous without having to sit through a lengthy hearing, reviewing a thick case file of documents, or engaging in the kind of deliberative process that parole boards undertake. Fox imagines a reality TV series for making weighty decisions in criminal matters, to determine, for example, the fate of defendants in court or prisoners seeking parole release? Fox says it would be like Judge Judy, but with the verdict left up to the television audience, along the lines of the hit series American Idol with an introduction like this: “Tonight on American Parolee, hopeful inmates audition for their freedom, as viewers at home phone in or text their votes for approval or denial.”
Fox says he’s not serious about this idea, saying, “It would be incredibly unfair to allow such critical decisions to be based on public opinion informed only by a brief performance on the tube.” The parole system allows punishments to be individualized based on the rehabilitative efforts and progress of a felon post-conviction, Fox writes. It is also an incentive for good institutional behavior, as it contributes to maintaining order within the prison walls. Still, more than a dozen states and the federal government have virtually eliminated discretionary parole review in response to public distrust. Where parole remains in effect, it has become increasingly difficult to attain, especially in high-profile cases.