What's the Matter With Parole?


FOR the best of reasons, the American people are highly interested to-day in prison parole, and the working of our parole laws. The newspapers have been filled, from time to time, with the operations of desperate criminals who were on parole when their new crimes were committed.

Here, for example, are the Waleys in the recent Weyerhaeuser kidnapping. Waley had broken his parole in the State of Washington, and he and his wife were wandering about the country, living from hand to mouth. Finding themselves in a small town in New Jersey, they applied for financial help to get themselves sent home. Having received the necessary assurance that if they came home they would be welcomed as prodigals, they returned to Washington, at the Government’s expense — and two days later were at work with Mahan, another parolee, on the Weyerhaeuser kidnapping.

Here is a case which came to light in New York last summer. It is that of a man, probably insane, who should have been kept permanently in an institution. He had been convicted and imprisoned for a crime against children of a most revolting character, then turned loose upon parole, and finally found and captured in New York, whither he had come after having assaulted, murdered, and buried another child.

Dillinger, the most sensational of our recent gunmen, was on parole when his career reached its murderous climax and finish.

It is unnecessary to repeat such illustrations. There are too many of them. As a result we have clamorous voices demanding that the parole principle be abolished and parole systems be discarded as just so much sloppy sentimentality, evolved by maudlin theorists and applied by complacent politicians. We must meet crime, we are told, by stiffer sentences, without quarter, and with no changes in the fixed punishment laid down by judges. Time and again, parole systems in recent years have been suspended in their operation by pressure of demands resulting from aroused public opinion due to evidences of the failure of parole in practice.

There were, according to the latest census statistics, 34,839 prisoners on parole in the United States in 1933, the latest year in which such statistics are available. The effectiveness of parole law and administration, applicable to nearly 35,000 ex-convicts, obviously is an important public question. It is one which needs to be considered in an atmosphere not surcharged with emotion and in which common sense and clear thinking are not at a discount.

Even if we should agree with these clamorous critics that most of the parole systems, so called, now maintained in American states are practically useless, that they do society little good and much harm, and simply serve to make the job of running prisons easier for their wardens, the question will still remain whether the abolition of parole is the answer. Before we consider abolishing it, let us at least understand what we are doing and why.

We Americans have a national sin of which we are insufficiently aware. It is the habit of evolving general ideas which may or may not be perfectly sound in principle, but which are of no earthly value unless the hard practical problem is solved of working out a sane system for putting these general ideas into effect. This latter job receives no headlines. Making speeches about unemployment insurance, old age insurance, and the general desirability of social security, involves, for example, no great difficulty, but drawing the specifications of a law which shall be other than a madhouse mess, on either of these topics, is a different matter. Parole is an older sister of this perplexing family. It is no new thing; it has had some fifty years of legislative history. Any discussion of it naturally divides itself into two categories: First, is it sound as a general idea? Second, why does n’t it work?


Let us consider parole first as a principle. Some 96 per cent of the convicts whom we send to prison will be released at some time, when their sentences are served; the average sentence is less than two years. The theory of parole is that it is to our interest as citizens, in a quite practical way, that a convict should not relapse into crime after release. What reasonably can be done while he is in prison to help give him an incentive toward decent living in later life is worth while. As a principle, parole proceeds upon the assumption that the function of a prison sentence should have a double purpose— punishment for the offense, and development of the offender into a person less likely on release to return to prison again for further infraction of the law.

Parole has two aspects which should not be confused, but must be considered separately. One is the power of the parole authorities, established by law, to shorten the period of imprisonment within limits fixed by law. The other is the function of supervising prisoners on parole, helping in the process of reëstablishing prisoners in society in the difficult and dangerous period immediately following release. The prime purpose is to assure society that prisoners so released shall not commit offenses during the period of their parole.

So far as the right to grant parole is concerned, where the board possesses discretionary power, its exercise obviously requires a discriminating study of individual prisoners and a knowledge of facts on which judgment can fairly be based. There is confusion in the public mind on one phase of the subject, which is the basis for a considerable amount of unjust criticism of parole boards, and which ought to be cleared up.

There is a difference between prisoners who have received prior sentences for felonies and so-called first offenders. Both classes may receive a certain reduction of prison time as an encouragement for proper behavior. While the calendar year may be twelve months, the prison year is ordinarily about eight months, and by serving eight months a prisoner thus has served a year on his sentence. This variation between the calendar year and the prison year the prison world calls ‘good’ time; penologists call it commutation of sentence. It generally applies to all prisoners, both those who have received a definite sentence for a stated period, which is the usual sentence for those previously convicted of a felony, and first offenders. It is a reward for good behavior, without which a warden’s life would be doubly difficult. Every convict knows how to figure his good time, and knows when he can expect to leave prison if he has complied with prison rules. Prison misconduct is charged against it, and this gives the warden an invaluable disciplinary weapon.

State laws vary as to the number of days allowed per month on good time. In some states a ten-year sentence can be worked off, by its application, in seven and one-half years; in others, in a shorter period. In this matter we are not considering parole in its true sense at all. This reduction of sentence is usually automatic, under rules established by law. Hardened and confirmed criminals receive the benefit of good time quite as much as first offenders under the laws of most of our states, and when a release occurs by operation of this provision of the statutes the release represents no exercise of judgment on the part of any parole board.

Many states make provision that convicts who are turned loose by operation of good time shall be subject to parole-board supervision for the balance of their sentences — that is, until the full time of their sentences, as fixed by the judge, has elapsed. When hardened criminals come out of prison under these good-time rules, since parole boards have no power to determine the advisability of their release, these boards are unjustly accused of negligence or error of judgment. But whether parole boards are remiss in supervising t he subsequent activities of these gentry is quite another matter. That all prisoners who leave prison before the expiration of their sentences, as fixed by the judge, require and should receive such supervision needs little argument. If the state fails to give to the parole board any adequate personnel for such supervision, leaves the board clothed with responsibility but affords it no means for exercising that responsibility, obviously the fault is in the law; and it is a vital fault in the law of most of our states.

The supervisory power to be exercised over prisoners for the balance of this unserved sentence has within it possibilities of immense social value; it is one of the greatest unused opportunities in American law.

Let us take an illustration. Here is a convict who has come out of prison. For three years after he has left prison, let us say, he is, in contemplation of law, not a free man, but one under state supervision. He can be sent back to prison by the parole board whenever it concludes, from his conduct and associations, that he cannot with safety to society be permitted to exercise his qualified freedom. Its determination to return him to prison requires no subsequent conviction of crime. It needs only the good judgment of the board itself as to the conduct and associations of the convict and their relation to the safety of the public. Parole supervision in the period before the convict is wholly free from the control of the state thus has obvious potentialities.

So, whether the parole board has or has not power to determine when the second or third offender can leave prison, it has, or should have, a tonic power over him in his contacts with society, power to aid him in making proper adjustments to his environment, to help him make good as a lawabiding man; and, on the other hand, power to send him back to prison for the balance of his unserved term if he relapses toward crime.

Let us now consider prisoners of a special class, the so-called first offenders. Generally they are not, in any true sense, first offenders. Many of them have been in conflict with the law before their final conviction, but have never before been convicted of a felony. From the standpoint of parole authority, however, they usually fall into a different class in a legal sense. The judge does not fix for them what is known as a definite sentence for a definite period. In theory, those convicted for the first time are in a more promising class among the sinners against society. They receive an indeterminate sentence of not less than one period, nor more than another. It then becomes the parole board’s function to decide, within these two limits fixed by the judge but mitigated by good time, how long these prisoners shall remain in prison.

This power given to parole boards over first offenders, so called, covers a very large class of cases. Perhaps one half of the prisoners in our state prisons are included under it. Therefore the parole board, in regard to these prisoners in particular, is potentially a very important adjunct of our criminal law.

An uncertain parole is an incentive to reform. If a prisoner knows that his conduct in prison, his attitude toward his task, his apparent state of mind, are being checked and studied; if he knows that these factors will be of decisive influence on the date of his parole, — since parole will not be automatic, as in the case of hardened offenders, on goodtime allowance based upon the shortened prison year, — it needs little argument to show the value of this parole uncertainty as a salutary influence upon the conduct of the prisoner.

What, then, does the parole board, with this power, really know about the prisoners subject to such control? Is the parole board a machine-made, lifeless system of general rules, with no personal application varying between prisoner and prisoner, or is it discriminative, a real thing? These are vital questions if the parole system is to be anything but a delusion.


Let us consider parole in practice. How are American states actually applying parole principles?

It needs no extensive argument, for example, to assert that parole, to be efficient, requires adequate administration by boards properly organized to do this work. Moreover it is important to each state that the parole systems of its sister states should be effective, that these parole laws should have some degree of uniformity, and that the states should be able to act with some degree of coöperation in their administration. Ex-convicts on parole in states with loose or inefficient regulations avoid parole to-day by the simple process of leaving the state and transferring the field of their activities.

Before considering parole in practice, this vital aspect of its importance should be emphasized. The bad effects of loose parole laws cannot be and are not confined to the states of their origin; paroled prisoners may be a menace to other states into which they drift, and where their status and character are unknown. Incidentally, it is generally an unoffending parole board of the receiving state which is blamed for its inefficiency when within its borders one of these wandering parolees from a sister state is apprehended for crime.

A large part of our inefficiency in handling crime is the parochial attitude of our states. This is particularly true of parole. Dogberry’s advice concerning the action to be taken on the recalcitrancy of malefactors, to ‘call the rest of the watch together and thank God you are rid of a knave,’ is too frequently followed by states in their attitude toward those who avoid parole laws by simply leaving the state whose laws they have violated. Sundown parole, which means leaving the state by sundown, is far too common, too simple, and too inadequate an answer for the effective administration of criminal law. Parole violators can enter states as well as leave them, and the mere exchange of crooks by interstate commerce is a doubtful blessing, either to those who give or to those who receive.

The interstate aspect of parole violation is a chapter by itself. As I write, the State of New York is seeking to obtain from Chicago an ex-convict who is an absconder on parole. Its application has been met with a writ of habeas corpus, granted by an Illinois judge, which has set the convict free by a decision making Illinois for the moment a sort, of Alsatia for fleeing convicts from other states under parole. Parole violation, the judge held, is not an extraditable crime; and the fact that this felon is, in law, a person under a judicial sentence — and under it amenable to the laws of New York, which he has violated — seems a matter of no importance in Illinois.

The American Prison Association today is endeavoring to assemble the data on which a general survey of parole laws and parole administration in the United States may be made possible. It is a task of great importance, and of equally great difficulty. Laws vary so greatly in different states that answers received on simple and basic matters in questionnaires sent out by the Association are not capable of ready analysis. The work is still incomplete, but enough facts have already been assembled to indicate the chaos now existing in parole considered on a national scale.

Some states have no unified parole law and no single administrative authority. In them parole of felons in state prisons is administered in one way, of misdemeanants in another; and at times each prison has its own system or lack of system. Some states have parole boards on full time, some on part time; some boards are administered by state officers as unpaid additions to their other duties. In other states the authorities receive more than adequate pay for parole work, for which there is no adequate evidence of performance.

Except in half a dozen states, financial appropriations for parole boards are entirely negligible. These boards meet seldom, have no contacts with the prisoners they parole before turning them loose, have no information as to their characters or previous records or prior associations; and the whole process of decision as to whether a convict shall be paroled is based upon looking at these candidates for clemency as they come before the board and exercising clairvoyant judgment upon them.

When the convict is released on parole, what supervision does he get? The correct answer, in general, is ‘none.’ A few states take parole supervision seriously and make proper provision for its support; but, with these few exceptions, contacts with prisoners are made by mail, and only once a month. Unless the paroled convict reports that he is associating with criminals, or committing new crimes, or unless he is in fact arrested for some new offense, nothing happens. In many states there are no supervising officers at all, and in others the number is so small and inadequate as to make parole supervision in any true sense physically impossible.

Here are a few samples of parole in practice. Colorado is almost unique in having no parole board whatever. The governor grants all pardons. All prisoners, except life-term convicts, are subject to parole at the expiration of their minimum sentences. On December 1, 1934, there were 2564 prisoners on parole, but there are no parole officers and no private agencies serve in parole work. Contacts are made bymonthly written reports by mail.

Oklahoma maintains an unpaid parole board of three, which meets approximately once a month. It had 2031 prisoners on parole in 1934. No parole officers are provided for by law, and no supervision of parolees; all contacts with prisoners, if made at all, are by mail once a month. A pardon and parole attorney receives these reports, and his $6000-a-year salary seems to be the sole state expense for all the parole work done by the state.

One question asked on a questionnaire sent to Oklahoma was ‘ What percentage of your parolees were violators in 1934?’ The answer was ‘Three quarters of one per cent.’

The reader can judge for himself as to the value of statistics on this vital question if he takes into consideration the facts on parole administration given above. The question instantly suggests itself: How does Oklahoma know?

In Oregon the governor alone can grant paroles and pardons. There is an unpaid advisory committee which visits prisons once a month, with one parole officer for the State Penitentiary, from which are released on parole an average of 254 men annually. After their release these men make monthly reports to the officer by mail.

Arizona, with an average of 2550 men on parole, has one parole officer to supervise them — through the mail.

Missouri, whose statutes grant the substantial reduction for good time of about five twelfths of the sentence, permits parole when one fifth of the sentence imposed by the judge has been served. Under this law, from her State Penitentiary are being turned loose prisoners on parole at the rate of 400 a year, with no parole officers and with so-called supervision, as usual, by mail.

The State of Washington has a board of three who visit the prisons every other month. It has 1200 convicts on parole, with no supervision, and only one parole officer who ‘could barely take care of violations.’

Florida has a board consisting of the governor, comptroller, secretary of state, attorney-general, and commissioner of agriculture, each drawing a salary of $5000. They seldom visit the prisons. There are 200 on parole, and no parole officers to supervise them.

The Lone Star State has a board of three, with salaries of $2500 each, who are supposed to give full time to their work; they visited the principal prison, Texas State Prison, twice in the last two years. There were no reports of prisoners, who the questionnaire stated were never contacted. Yet from this great prison alone 875 prisoners were paroled in 1934.

The warden’s comments, which are part of the questionnaire, are worth quoting: —

After a man is paroled, he is given $5.00 and a ticket to the county of conviction and makes no report to anyone. He is free to go any place he wishes, and his parole is only revoked if he gets into additional trouble. . . . The Board acts on cases submitted to them by mail, and in very few cases have ever talked to the applicant. The disadvantages to our parole system are many, and when a man is paroled he is placed under no restriction. We never hear from him again unless he is arrested on a new charge.

We are inclined to accept the warden’s further comment: ‘We have practically no parole law.’ An equal degree of frankness would give the same answer for most of the states covered by the questionnaire.

The progressive state of Nebraska has a board composed of public officers elected for other positions and a secretary. The secretary goes to the prisons once a month; the board never. The secretary supervises all paroled prisoners by mail.


How worthless, in general, are the parole statistics which are given to the public on the behavior of parolees is sufficiently indicated by the current method of supervision under the systems now in force in all except a few states.

The parole officers know simply nothing about what their charges are doing, and merely guess at their rehabilitation by an inspection of casual postcards or letters from them. The supervisory principle of parole is more honored in the breach than in the observance. States in which parole in effect never has been tried can scarcely be used honestly as a basis for discrediting parole as a principle and as a practice.

The value and importance of parole properly applied become more apparent when one considers the facts with reference to the products of our prisons as human beings. Most of our convicts are of a low order mentally. The gangster movies give an entirely wrong picture of our prison population as a whole. A very large part of these people come from a class which, as school children, could not keep up with other children — a subnormal group which includes, so educators tell us, from 2 to 10 per cent of our school population. The effect of this group upon our criminal population was illustrated in a startling way in the exhaustive Lewisohn Survey of New York Prisons of fifteen years ago. It contained a chart made up from the school histories of 1295 New York convicts in state prisons, chosen at random, based upon the age at which they left school and the grades then reached. Over 75 per cent were shown to have been from one to nine years behind the normal grades for children of like age.

Sometimes we may realize that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, and that the unsolved educational problem of the subnormal child may return to distress and burden us in another field. That, of course, is another story. These convicts come from broken homes. They are aimless, drifting creatures, accustomed to bad associations, who particularly need direction and guidance if they are ever to be anything but potential subjects for the police. It is sound sense for every state to try, during the period in which these men are subject to its control in the parole period, to prevent them from becoming permanent additions to our criminal class.

I hesitate at this point to speak about the matter of expense. It nevertheless is an important element in the problem. Properly supervised, parole probably need not cost more than 10 per cent of the cost of maintaining convicts in prison. Very few of our states are spending anything like this amount upon parole administration. If men, during the course of their imprisonment, have reached a state where, with safety to society, they can be let loose on parole, if at that time they have received adequate punishment for their offenses, a further expenditure of prison maintenance, from the standpoint of overburdened taxpayers, is not only wasteful, but undesirable.

These men must come out of prison sometime, and it is far better to have an experimental period outside of prison walls, during which they are subject to due control by state authorities, than within. If the state is so penny-wise and niggardly in its appropriations for parole as to make this supervision impossible, the fault is with the law and the state which makes it, and not with the principle of parole itself.


Before considering parole as administered in states which regard it seriously, and have spent and expect to spend adequate funds on proper administration, let us consider what we may reasonably expect from parole operation. That the business of selecting persons to whom parole should apply is at best difficult and deals with human factors of great uncertainty, no one can question. Where discretionary power exists in parole boards, mistakes in judgment are bound to occur, even when such boards are properly manned and implemented. No reasonable person will expect perfection in so difficult a task.

Either parole is wrong in principle, and the parolees must be kept in prison to the end of their terms and then turned loose, with no supervision and no intermediate period of control, or parole principles must be applied. There has been no suggestion of any alternative course.

We can admit that the difficulties of supervising prisoners when on parole are also inherently great; misconduct of which parole officers are ignorant is possible. Again, the only alternative is a definite period of punishment followed by complete freedom for a man who for years has been confined in prison, who has no decent friends, no job, and no money except the pittance allowed by the state or received from his prison industry, with a railroad ticket which he gets at the prison gate. We must ask ourselves under which method of procedure the ex-prisoner is most likely to go straight.

We, as well as the prisoner, are interested in the answer. A few, a very few, states take parole seriously. They make and can make no claim to perfection. There is no perfection as yet ascertainable in any aspect of American criminal law or its administration. Parole neither is nor perhaps ever can be the exception. But what states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York are at least trying to do is in strong contrast with the situation in states which make a mockery of the whole sorry business. They suffer to-day from criticism because of the failure of other states to make of parole administration or supervision anything but a travesty and a sham.

The few states which take parole seriously differ among themselves in methods of administration. The whole question is an exceedingly complex one, and nothing but general statements can be expected in this brief consideration.

It may fairly be said, however, that where parole has been established as a working principle, operated with some degree of continuity of applied common sense, with appropriate provision for proper personnel, where it has been made something more than a mere jobmaking device for politicians, it has produced results in practice which fully establish the soundness of its principle and justify its maintenance and existence. In recent years it has been applied and extended with intelligence in the Federal prison system. It has been used with marked success in the problems of women offenders, who particularly lend themselves to the efficient application of case-work handling.

New York, having maintained for more than four decades an ineffective parole system only slightly better than those previously mentioned, five years ago radically changed its state policy. By a fortunate accident, it has had three successive governors, Smith, Roosevelt, and Lehman, who agreed in wishing to make the policy of the state in regard to parole something more than an underfinanced moral gesture. Another accident, even more fortunate for New York, was the continuity, into the second generation, of the lifelong, tireless, and generous interest of Adolph Lewisohn in the prison and its problems through the effective work of his son, Sam, in this neglected field.

To-day New York has the most thoroughly equipped parole system in the country. It has abolished the old part-time parole board, which galloped about the prisons every month and in two or three one-hour sessions turned loose each year several thousand prisoners upon four state parole officers, and upon the charity of four religious and social organizations. A parole scandal aroused public attention and focused it long enough to make a start toward fundamental reform. Consequently parole in New York to-day is administered by a full-time Parole Board, appointed by the governor, which has under its supervision a staff of 101 investigators and parole officers. Over 95 per cent of these officers are college graduates, with specialized training for their work, and chosen under Civil Service rules. In the past year the number of parole officers has been increased from 72 to 86.

Before prisoners eligible for parole consideration are passed on by the Board, it obtains, through its staff, the needed information on which alone can parole be intelligently granted — the past family life, education, work record, criminal record, and prison record of the candidate, and data on his mental condition and physical health. The Board then knows what the prison itself can tell about the prisoner.

In about 40 per cent of the cases coming before the Board for release on parole, it grants parole when the candidates are legally eligible for its operation. When parole is granted, a prisoner who cannot secure employment obtains the aid of the Board’s employment bureau.

In every case a complete programme is worked out in advance for the conduct of the prisoner on parole. He is assigned to a parole officer for guidance and superintendence and must report at frequent periods. This supervision is not a paper substitute, but an attempt at true superintendence. If the conditions laid down are not followed, the prisoner goes back to prison. The fact that the Board supervises in reality rather than in theory is indicated by the number of parolees sent back to prison for parole violations. During the past five years 28 per cent of those on parole have been adjudged delinquent, 14 per cent for arrests for other crimes and 14 per cent for technical violations of parole conditions. Let it be noted that most parolees do not go back to prison, and seem by their conduct to have learned the necessary lesson of prison experience.

While the funds appropriated by New York for its State Parole Board seem enormous, in comparison with other states, the figures themselves need no apology. In 1935 the total budget of the Parole Department for the state prisons was $381,220. When one considers that in New York the average annual cost of prison maintenance per prisoner is $500, the cost of parole supervision by the Parole Board is negligible in comparison, for it is less than 10 per cent of this sum, or approximately $42 per prisoner. The average parole period is approximately three years.

Incidentally, and this should not be overlooked, the great majority of these prisoners on parole are not only supporting themselves but contributing to the support of their families, and thereby affording an additional relief to taxpayers otherwise burdened wholly or in part with the support of these dependents.

State parole in New York has, of course, reached no pinnacle of perfection in the five years of the new Board, which has, however, made a very acceptable record. A New York City grand jury, with no favorable predisposition, has recently given its operation a thorough investigation, with general approval, and its principal recommendation was that the work be extended and more parole officers be added to its working force.

The statistics of operation in the five years of the Board’s activity show apparent progress from year to year; the work of the department has improved with experience. An interesting illustration is found in a comparison of the Parole Board report of its graduating class of 1932 with that of 1934. Of 3000 prisoners paroled in 1932, 28.4 per cent were declared delinquent by the Board, 14.5 per cent being arrested for infraction of criminal law and 13.9 per cent for violations of conditions of parole, failing to report, and so forth. In 1934, of 3075 prisoners paroled, 193 were arrested for new crimes and 142 were found delinquent for violations of parole conditions, failing to report, and so forth — a total of 335, or only 10.8 per cent.


The present position of parole as administered in our country is, it must be repeated, a dark and disheartening one, but it is not hopeless. If the states can be made to realize its importance and its potential value as a working principle; if those states which to-day have no parole laws, or only formless skeletons of parole, incapable of life and function, can be induced to undertake the hard work of making them workable and respectable, the crime bill of American taxpayers can be materially reduced, a basic improvement can be made in our present administration, and a distinct forward step can be taken in the warfare on crime.

What parole peculiarly needs to-day, perhaps more than ever before, is an aroused and informed public opinion on this whole matter and a genuine desire to have something constructive done. Parole is at best an administrative problem of extreme complexity. It has been grossly neglected. It will not be helped by general faultfinding in the future any more than it has been in the past. It needs, in every state, careful study by those citizens who are sufficiently interested to acquire an understanding of parole principles, and who have the patience to find and correct the defects in law and administration which have made parole fail in accomplishing its purpose. With that aroused public opinion which the situation urgently calls for, this can be done. It is community work long overdue.