A typical parole officer works in a small, cramped office in an old, dilapidated neighborhood, earning much less than the average police officer or prison guard, says Mother Jones magazine. A growing pile of case files sit stacked on his desk; in parts of New York City, some officers handle a mind-boggling 200 cases at any given time. To see where parole fits into the justice system, consider a 2002 Department of Justice study on recidivism, which found that 51.8 percent of criminals end up back in prison within three years. Of those, over half are sent back not for criminal behavior, but for violating a condition of parole–a missed appointment, a failed drug test, not landing a job.
In a new book, “Downsizing Prisons,” Michael Jacobson suggests reducing the strain on overcrowded prisons by fixing dysfunctional parole systemsy. Jacobson, former Commissioner of the New York City Departments of Correction and Probation and now head of the Vera Institute of Justice, understands a key reality: When it comes to crime control, sensible policy rarely wins out. Yet a new Pew Survey shows that Americans no longer value a “tough on crime” stance quite so much as they once did. President Bush, in his 2005 State of the Union address, paid lip service to “prisoners’ rights” issues such as special training for public defenders, a stance that would have been political suicide just ten years ago. The foundation for a new order has been laid; the most practical place to start, Jacobson argues, is with parole agencies.