Viewpoints

Long parole terms waste taxpayer money. Here’s one way to fix a broken system

For the majority of my four decades in law enforcement, I focused squarely on identifying criminals, capturing them and bringing them into custody.

As I rose from beat cop to police captain in the Inglewood Police Department and ultimately to deputy chief and interim chief of police with the West Sacramento Police Department, getting “bad guys” off the street was all I was ever trained to do.

In these years, there was little consideration for the harmful ramifications the criminal justice system had on our communities, because of a widely held but misplaced belief that incarceration was the “solution” for an ever-growing list of social problems.

My opinion of the criminal justice system’s effectiveness changed forever in 2006 when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s team called and asked me to become the director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Department of Adult Parole Operations. For the first time in my professional life, I was responsible for the management of the “outbound” side of the criminal justice system.

Overnight, my obligation shifted 360 degrees and I was now sworn to help stop the cycle of crime by ensuring people successfully re-integrated back into their communities after being released from state prison.

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It didn’t take long to realize the system was failing miserably, with recidivism rates approaching 70 percent.

What I discovered was a system that was mostly committed to surveillance and enforcement. In many ways, parole was functioning as an extension of the local police. All too often, this misaligned focus resulted in people failing to get the help they needed to successfully reintegrate into their communities.

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Tom Hoffman

I also quickly began to question the effectiveness of a supervision model that was fundamentally organized around a “one size fits all,” decision-making model based solely on the crime a person committed.

Among other problems, this approach resulted in far too many low and moderate risk offenders being supervised for unnecessarily long periods of time. In fact, I learned that it has long been recommended that low-risk offenders should not be supervised at all, as the parole process tends to increase the likelihood of failure.

Research shows that those who complete the initial 180 days of parole without committing a new crime or violating the terms of their supervision are much less likely to recidivate.

And yet, most of the people on parole are retained for the maximum time allowable under the law – in many cases for as long as three years or more. Compliance and crime-free behavior in the initial 180 days of supervision should be incentivized and, unless there are objectively verifiable reasons that can be linked to criminal intent, people should be discharged.

Simply stated, parole supervision should only be maintained for as long as it needs to be, not for as long as it can be.

That’s why I’m supporting Assembly Bill 1182, a bill authored by Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) and sponsored by Californians for Safety and Justice. It would align the state parole and probation systems with evidence-based practices by allowing some people to become eligible for release from supervision after successfully completing the first six months. It would also mandate that a person’s risk of committing another crime be the primary factor in determining whether a person should be released.

In California, and across the nation, we need to continue to create a justice system that employs evidence and risk-based practices designed to improve public safety.

Data, research, and science on what works should guide policy. We cannot continue to waste taxpayer dollars on failed approaches driven mostly by a desire to appear “tough” on crime. And just as we now know that mass incarceration is not an effective way of creating safety for our communities, neither is needlessly keeping people on long terms of parole.

This change is long overdue. Let’s move from “tough” to smart.

Tom Hoffman is the retired director of the CDCR’s Department of Adult Parole Operations. He previously served as deputy chief and interim chief of the West Sacramento Police Department and is currently a consultant for Californians for Safety and Justice.
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