Should California Change the Name of Parole Supervision to Avoid Citizen Confusion?
Two local California papers, the Fresno Bee and the Merced Sun-Star, both ran editorials this weekend calling for parole reform. Since the California press tends toward fact-free fearmongering when it comes to covering all things related to prison policy (as the Sun-Star headline puts it, “Tough talk on crime clouds issues”), I was glad to see these two papers actually presenting a rational explanation to their readers of why California is such an outlier on parole. Here’s an excerpt from the Bee editorial:
Here’s an area where California is an anomaly among states: Since 1979, those who complete their prison sentences are placed on a three-year period of post-sentence supervision, called parole. California stands alone in paroling all prisoners. Most states reserve parole for the most serious offenders.
Another peculiarity is California’s churning parolees in and out of prison for short-term sentences (averaging four months, maximum one year) as a result of technical violations of parole. They were not convicted of a new crime. Surely, the state can come up with sanctions besides prison. …
[On the other end of the spectrum:] Incredibly, under California’s current system, some prosecutors decline to prosecute even violent crimes, instead sending parolees to the parole board for technical violations.
However, some of the reader comments in response to these articles confirmed my suspicion that the indiscriminate use of the word “parole” to describe a range of very different phenomena has had the effect of confusing citizens and perhaps distorting the debate on criminal justice reform in the Golden State. One Merced reader comments, “Mandatory sentencing is need, 75% of the sentence should be served before parole is considered.” Fresno readers write, “convicts only spend a fraction of their sentences behind bars as it is,” and “Do away with parole all together make everyone do the complete sentence handed down and the crime /return rate will also go down.” These comments betray a thorough misunderstanding of California sentencing. Since determinate sentencing reforms in the late 1970s, the vast majority of California prisoners do serve their full sentence and parole refers not to early or discretionary release, but to a mandatory supervision period imposed upon all prisoners after they’ve served their full time.* Although California does have some number of prisoners serving indeterminate x-to-life terms who are eligible for parole in the traditional sense of going before a parole board and petitioning for early release, these are a small fraction of the prison population and certainly not the population affected by recent parole reform proposals, which are aimed at the lowest-level offenders.
Now, of course you can’t make too much of anonymous Internet commenters (these people may not even be from California, may not have closely read the article, etc.) but I wouldn’t be surprised if these misunderstandings are common among California voters given that California uses the word “parole” to mean so many different things, and in particular, its use of the word “parole” to refer to mandatory post-release supervision for all offenders is, like the practice itself, both historically and comparatively anomalous. To clarify the discussion about much-needed prison and parole reform in California, I wonder if the state shouldn’t change the name of post-release parole supervision to something that will be more accurately understood by all citizens. How about something like, “post-release supervision” or “post-release monitoring,” or even something more colloquial, like “outside time” or, as some offenders themselves call it, “life on the installment plan.” It may be a pipe dream to hope that the California bureaucracy would actually institute a terminology change but perhaps commentators, bloggers, reformers, etc. can start using a new term and see if it sticks?
** Technically, determinately sentenced offenders serve their full sentence less good-time credits (eligibility for which varies, but can be known in advance). To be sure, some citizens may disagree with the practice of granting good-time credits, but there is a fixed a priori maximum of good-time credits available to any particular offender, so that still creates a determinate maximum at sentencing that the offender knows he/she will have to serve before being released. It’s not discretionary early release.