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Why It Might Be Time To Rethink The Rules Of Parole

Let’s say you’re 60 years old with a manslaughter conviction, newly released on parole. The conditions you’ve signed prohibit you from driving a car without permission, ban you from going out after curfew, and forbid you from drinking alcohol or going into a bar. You did a bad thing, no doubt about it. But today, after you’ve served your time, how strictly should you be managed?

“I don’t think everyone coming out of prison needs to be supervised,” said Brian Fischer, former commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. In this hypothetical scenario, “the likelihood of recidivism is zero,” he said. “Why do we need to restrict him?”

Parole conditions vary widely from state to state and case to case. As states attempt to reduce their prison populations, and as the number of parolees grows — now up to more than 851,000 people nationally — advocates are increasingly concerned that parole rules can be too restrictive for the average parolee, making it too easy to end up behind bars again for technical violations.1 As states contend with the high cost of incarceration and use parole to cut costs, advocates are calling for consistency in how it’s deployed.

Some restrictions seem practical (“complying with all laws”), while others seem nearly impossible to follow (“abandon evil associates and ways”). Other times, they run counter to mainstream culture; states including Kansas, Kentucky and Hawaii prevent parolees from drinking alcohol and going into bars.2 Also, enforcement of these rules varies from parole agent to parole agent.

“Most of us could not live under the rules of parole because there are too many of them,” Fischer said.

Certain behaviors that break a law, and therefore also violate parole terms, are fairly common in the general public. In 2013, 19.8 million adults were current marijuana users, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Almost half of drivers say they keep up with faster, often speeding traffic. About 660,000 people used a cellphone while driving in 2011, which potentially breaks the law in at least 44 states. Not only do these actions violate parole, they delay the reentry process, especially if a parolee found in violation is sent to a treatment facility or county jail, which costs taxpayers money.3

Over the past four decades, the parole population has steadily grown. Between 1975 and 2012, the number of parolees nationwide increased by 495 percent, to more than 851,000 individuals, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).4 This growth reflects the still-unfurling impact of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, a tough-on-crime stance meant to fight against the chaos of the heroin and crack epidemics of the 1970s and 1980s.

To examine parole restrictions, we zoomed in on Pennsylvania. The state had the second-largest number of parolees in 2012, behind only Texas — 101,351 people in 2012, according to the BJS. (Texas’s parolee population was 112,288 people in 2012. Maine, at the other extreme, abolished parole decades ago and, as of two years ago, had only 21 parolees, grandfathered in.)


After adjusting for population, Pennsylvania had the highest share of people on parole among all states in 2012.5 And from 1975 to 2012, the number of parolees per 100,000 residents in the state increased by a whopping 1198 percent, from 61 to 794.

In the past two years, observers have seen fewer people in Pennsylvania return to prison for technical violations, as opposed to new crimes, in part because of a 2012 law that diverts technical violators from state prisons and lessens the amount of time they spend there. (In 2013, more than 4,300 parolees were sent to community-based treatment programs, halfway houses and detention centers instead of state prisons, according to Pennsylvania’s parole board.)

As far as state parole conditions go, Pennsylvania has relatively few. The basic conditions are: Don’t have illegal drugs or weapons; don’t assault people; don’t leave your district without permission; live only at an approved residence; check in with your parole agent; pay any court costs, fines and restitution; and don’t break any laws.

Drinking alcohol, which is a typical add-on condition of parole in Pennsylvania, is an everyday behavior that can get people in trouble with their parole agents.

In the general public, 52 percent of adults had at least one drink per month in 2013, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, and 23 percent drank five or more drinks in a sitting at least once during the month prior to when the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration gave the survey.

In Pennsylvania, 92 percent of parolees were barred from drinking in 2010, and 91 percent weren’t allowed to go into bars — but not everyone with this requirement had an alcohol-related conviction.6

The Pennsylvania parole board adds these conditions because, in its view, many offenders are prone to impulsive behavior, poor cognitive thinking skills and anger management issues, which do not mix well with alcohol, and because bars are seen as places of gang and drug activity.

Most parole agents nationwide are not likely to recommend that someone return to prison or a county jail for minor violations such as drinking, but more than half — 56 percent — of the 558 Pennsylvania parolees who were recommitted last month were sent back for technical violations, said Sherry Tate, a state parole board spokeswoman. The remaining 44 percent committed a new crime.

“Just because it is a ‘technical’ parole violation does not mean that it isn’t serious or that the offender’s behavior is not posing a risk to public safety,” Tate said.

In Pennsylvania, the most common technical violation brought to a hearing last year was moving from an approved residence. Of the more than 3,300 people who had their parole revoked last year, almost half moved without permission, although many had more than one violation, according to the parole board.

People in the general population move for a range of reasons. About 12 percent of Americans moved between 2012 and 2013, and almost half did so for a housing-related reason, as opposed to for a new job or after getting married. Eight percent of them wanted cheaper housing and 2 percent moved because of a foreclosure or eviction, according to the Census Bureau.

Moving without an agent’s knowledge can be an issue for a few reasons, said Fischer, who was a parole officer in New York in the 1960s and 1970s before he was state commissioner. A stable, safe home helps smooth the reentry process and helps parolees keep a job, he said. It also enables the parole agent to maintain a relationship with the parolee’s family at the home if things go wrong. “If you don’t know what’s going on, there’s a tendency to assume the worst,” Fischer said.

Reentry remains a challenge for many parolees, particularly those who spent years locked up.

“You and I know how to turn on a computer, how to turn on a stove,” said Lauren Snyder, assistant director of the reform-minded nonprofit Justice and Mercy in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. “They are so institutionalized, it’s almost like training a toddler.”

Not everyone has so much to learn, but housing can be a challenge regardless. Some people encounter discrimination in the housing market, and in certain counties, such as Lancaster, no more than three unrelated people are allowed live in one residence. That can be hard for people with lower incomes or people with criminal records who are struggling to find work, said John Rush, executive director of New Person Ministries, a halfway house and reentry nonprofit in Reading, Pennsylvania.

If a parolee seems to have moved and has not contacted his agent in a month, it’s probably cause for concern. If it’s only been a week, the agent has to make a decision about how to respond when he connects again. Written reprimand? Revoke parole? It depends on the reasons the parolee went dark and whether the agent tends to be more punitive or rehabilitative.

“The parole agents have an enormous amount of discretion,” said William Burrell, former head of parole and probation in New Jersey who now consults counties around the country, including those in Pennsylvania, on parole reforms. Agents “literally could lock anyone up any given time because they are violating one or more condition.”

Parole boards and agents are not immune to public opinion.

“We overreact to a new crime, and we want to look for somebody to blame,” Fischer said. “It means you [the agents] are always looking over your shoulder. There is a tendency to be more restrictive than easy because of that.”

To help guide parole agents in deciding what rises to the level of recommitment and what doesn’t, the Pennsylvania parole board has a color-coded grid. If a parolee tests positive for drugs, or doesn’t report a change in job status, or doesn’t pay fees, including for urine tests or court-ordered therapy,7 penalties can include a written warning, a curfew or required treatment. More serious violations, such as assaulting someone or moving without permission, can be met with a harsher penalty, usually movement to some kind of facility, like a mental health or detox facility, or having to wear a tracking device.

Gordon Diem witnessed differences among agents, both as a person on parole and as an employee at New Person Ministries. One agent might bar a sex offender, like Diem, from attending church under any circumstance, while another agent might encourage it, he said. During unannounced home visits, one agent might “come at night and open your drawers … and grab your phone,” whereas his agent, who was authorized to search Diem’s phone at any time, rarely did.

“The biggest problem is that no two officers seem to approach dealing with parolees the same way,” Diem said.

Of course, each person and violation should be handled case by case, and they are. “Some of that is appropriate, but you want to have consistency,” said Burrell, the former New Jersey head of parole.

Deciding how best to handle the parolee population — helping them reenter society while managing risk to the public — has been a challenge as policy and history shifts.

Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, said he has seen a political shift toward alternatives to incarceration, including community-based treatment options.

“In the past, we really wanted these people to be perfect,” Bergstrom said. But some still view parole as a privilege, not part of the reentry process. Those people tend to think, “This person better play by all the rules, and there better be no mistakes along the way.”


  1. California, with the third-largest parole population in the country has 20 basic conditions of parole. There, you can’t be around guns or “things that look like a real gun.” If you get arrested, you have to tell your agent “immediately.” You also can’t have knives with blades longer than 2 inches — except in your kitchen or if you are a chef, and if you are a chef you can only carry these approved knives to and from work, and even then only with written permission from your parole agent. Two states go the opposite direction, shedding specificity for ambiguity. In Alabama, you must “abandon evil associates and ways,” and in Louisiana, you must avoid “places of disreputable or harmful character.” In Alaska, you aren’t allowed to work as an informant. Many states require parolees to pay various court and other fees; Arizona’s monthly supervision fee can be no less than $65, and Louisiana’s is $53, due the first of each month.

  2. These three states bar alcohol in their basic conditions for all people on parole, but Pennsylvania adds this condition to more than 90 percent of parolees’ special conditions.

  3. It’s $30 cheaper per day to hold a technical violator in a county jail than in a state prison facility, according to a Pennsylvania parole board spokeswoman.

  4. The majority of parolees — 87 percent — were under state jurisdiction in 2012, according to the BJS. The rest were federal parolees.

  5. Washington, D.C., had the highest share in the U.S., 930 parolees per 100,00 residents.

  6. The Pennsylvania parole board didn’t have available a breakdown of how many parolees with these conditions actually had alcohol-related convictions.

  7. Court fees are a whole other aspect of being on parole that we didn’t choose to get into here. Inmates who have been granted parole can still be held until they pay “all victims fees,” according to the Pennsylvania parole board.

Jessica Glazer is a multimedia reporter in New York City and the founder of ReportHers, which features Q&As with innovative women in journalism.