Parole and the Prisons - An Opportunity Wasted

A widely read novelist whose avocation is criminology, ERLE STANLEY GARDNER believes that the strengthening of our parole system would be the most effective and least expensive method of controlling crime. Confining prisoners for excessive terms, he argues, is as bad as releasing them without further supervision.


SOME years ago I had occasion to dedicate a book to the real underdog of the whole prison system: the parole board. In many states the parole board is confined in a strait jacket of mathematical limitations. The prisons will hold only so many inmates. The taxpayers refuse to appropriate money to build more prisons. The courts continue to convict a steady stream of culprits and pour them into the already overcrowded prisons.

The only answer, of course, is mathematical and obvious. If the penal institutions hold twentyfive hundred prisoners and are full to overflowing, and the courts send in seven hundred new prisoners a year, the parole board is going to have to parole approximately one third of the prisoner population each year.

When a prison inmate who has been released on parole makes good, and becomes an honored and respected member of his community, he seldom rises up in public and says, “Fifteen years ago I was an inmate of the state penitentiary.” On the other hand, whenever a man commits a crime, and his criminal record shows that he has once been released on parole, you can be reasonably certain that the headlines will refer to the fact that the man has been a parolee.

Recently I have given a lot of thought to the underlying causes of crime, and I have about concluded that the greatest cause of crime today is public indifference and public ignorance of the problems of penology. The average citizen is completely sold on the idea of punishment as a crime deterrent. There is sound reasoning to support that position. The average citizen, however, goes further and feels that punishment is a cure for crime. And by no stretch of the imagination can statistical figures furnish that position the slightest support. However, this attitude persists.

When a small boy is caught stealing cookies, he is given a spanking, and, theoretically at least, that punishment cures him of his desire to steal cookies. Therefore, when a grown man steals money from a bank, society’s idea is that it will punish him and thereby cure him of his criminal tendencies.

The difference is that the child’s punishment is short, certain, and soon over with. It is administered against a background of love, affection, and security. The punishment of the criminal is uncertain, it is a long-drawn-out affair, and it is far too often administered against a background of vindictive antagonism.

Statistics show that virtually all prisoners eventually are released from custody. Only approximately 2 per cent die in prison. As a matter of fact nearly all prisoners who are released should be released on parole. If society waits until the sentence has been completely served, then the prisoner is released with no supervision whatever, and he is free to return to a life of crime if he so desires. Unfortunately, far too many prisoners so desire. This is true because of environment, because of economic pressures, and because of habit.

If prisoners are released on parole a year or two before their sentences normally expire, the parole board has an opportunity at least to check up on what the prisoner is doing after his release.

Occasionally we hear someone saying that probation and parole aren’t working. What the citizen making such a statement overlooks is the fact that he is condemning a basically sound principle because, in many parts of the country, the probation and parole officials are given more cases than they can handle, and are understaffed.

As I have sometimes said, it is as though we took all of the airmail which was going out of Denver, all of the air freight, and all of the air passengers, and crowded them into one airplane. Quite naturally that airplane wouldn’t be able to get off the ground. But that wouldn’t mean that air transportation was a failure. If we are going to have probation and parole intelligently administered, we must be as careful of the case load, with relation to trained personnel, as we are in weighing the number of pounds which goes into an airplane before it tries to take off the runway.

I know of many parole boards so overworked that they have no opportunity to make regular checkups on their cases. They tell the parolee, “ You’ll have to report every thirty days. That means you must write me a letter and tell me what you’re doing, how you’re getting along, and report every change of address.” The surprising thing is that some people really do make good under conditions of that sort.

The criminal is a human being. Through some weakness in his character, some defect in his environment, he is unable or unwilling to conform to the rules of society. Therefore society imprisons him. Unless something has been done to this inmate during imprisonment to strengthen his character, he is just as poor a moral risk when he gets out as he was when he went in; in fact he is a much poorer risk. His friends on the outside have dropped away. He has formed friends among the criminals on the inside. He has been deprived of the opportunity to make decisions for himself and to withstand temptation. He has been living a regimented life where, as far as possible, opportunities for mischief have been eliminated. As someone has aptly pointed out, expecting a period of confinement to cure defects in a man’s character is like taking an automobile which has ceased to run, shutting it up in a garage for a period of months, and then expecting it to run perfectly. In short, these men need help. They need a stiffening of their moral stamina. They need encouragement. They need counsel from someone who knows the problems which are confronting them.

SOME years ago I went East to cover the case of Willie (the Actor) Sutton for Look magazine. While there, I became quite well acquainted with two of the judges in the jurisdiction where Sutton was being tried. They were the Honorable Peter T Farrell and the Honorable William B. Groat.

I found that these two judges had worked out a system of their own in regard to probation. I asked them about the percentage of failure and was startled to find that they had virtually no failures. I wanted to find out the secret.

One of the judges told me, in effect, “There isn’t any secret about it. We know that these men got up against conditions that were too much for them and they committed a crime. We know that if they get up against another set of similar conditions they’re apt to commit another crime. The thing to do is to see that their troubles and temptations don’t pile up to such a point that they lose their perspective.

“Every so often we send for one of these fellows. We invite him to come to our chambers in the evening. When the defendant was in court he was in there as a criminal. He was looking up at a stern-faced judge, clad in judicial robes, who represented the majesty of the law he had violated. The criminal wasn’t treated as a human being and the judge wasn’t acting as a human being. The judge was the majesty of the law, the criminal was the man who had violated the law.

“But when we get the man into chambers we meet him on a basis of man-to-man. If it’s hot weather we take off our coats, we put our feet up on the desk, and then we ask the fellow if he wants a smoke. We hand him a cigar.

“We sit there with this fellow and talk over his problems. We give him a little advice, not as a judge, but as a guy who is taking a friendly interest in him and who has seen a lot of troubles come and go. We give him a pat on the back and send him out.

“Of course,” the judge went on, “it raises the devil with our evenings, and the cost of cigars do mount up, but we feel we’re doing a job.”

And they certainly were doing a job!

That’s the difference between probation which really helps a man and impersonal probation in which a man is thrown back into the very conditions which were too great for him to cope with originally.

Probation and parole are much less expensive than keeping a man in close confinement. Moreover, during the time he is on probation the man can make a constructive contribution to the earnings of society. If an inmate has been rehabilitated, he returns to society as a useful citizen. He holds down a job, he earns money, he pays taxes, he buys merchandise, he keeps money in circulation, he adds to the prosperity of the country. If he hasn’t been rehabilitated, he doesn’t work, he commits crimes, he costs the taxpayers money at every turn of the road. The police have to hunt him down. He may have been committing crimes of violence, he may have robbed, raped, or murdered Then when the police eventually catch up with him, he has to be tried at great expense, convicted by evidence which proves him guilty beyond all reasonable doubt, and then returned to prison where he is once more supported by the taxpayers.

Those who have made any study of the problem realize that it is absolutely essential that we place more emphasis on rehabilitation while the inmate is in prison. Rehabilitation can’t come from without. It must come from within. The inmate can be given the opportunity to rehabilitate himself, but he must be inspired to want to rehabilitate himself. The approach depends upon the individual. It is a positive treatment which must be used in addition to the physical restraint of the prisoner, which is a negative treatment.

As someone has aptly pointed out, what seems to be the cheapest thing society can do with a prisoner, to shut him up and keep him shut up, is in the long run the most expensive treatment society can give that prisoner. Rehabilitation costs money, but it is the best investment society can make.

There are, of course, people who should never be paroled. There are some sex criminals who should never be released, some persons who are criminally insane, and some prisoners who are frankly, completely, and utterly hostile to society.

The sex criminal is probably motivated bydrives which the average, normal man simply can’t understand and which the sex criminal himself can’t control or sometimes even anticipate.

If we regard prison detention as being in the nature of a quarantine, there is no reason why a man’s release should come from the calendar. A sentence can be made for a fixed or indeterminate period, but each sentence can contain the proviso that if this man has not made substantial progress in curbing and curing the defects of character which caused his original commitment so that he is safe as far as society is concerned, his release is to be postponed until he is considered safe to mingle with society again.

Expert penologists tell me that there are some people who should never be released from prison; not because these people should be more severely punished than others, but simply because they can’t be trusted in society or with themselves.

On the other hand, the majority of the expert penologists with whom I have talked tell me that there comes a time in the life of almost every imprisoned man when he should be released, when punishment has done all that can be expected of it, when more punishment will simply make the man bitter. There is a time when remorse triggers a determination for rehabilitation.

If the prisoner can be released at that psychological moment, there is little danger that he is ever going to return. If that moment is permitted to pass, the prisoner will become either embittered or apathetic. Remorse, instead of triggering rehabilitation, can wear thin and give way to prison apathy.

Unfortunately, some prisoners have spent so much time in prison that it becomes their home. The mores of prison life become the norm for that individual. When he is released, his lungs take a full breath of the air of freedom. He faces eagerly a normal life, but soon finds himself either assailed by pangs of homesickness for prison or sufficiently indifferent so that he is quite willing to embark again upon a criminal career without caring too much whether or not he is caught.

There aren’t any easy answers to the crime problem, but the public can rest assured of one thing: the career penologists who have specialized in the subject know more of the answers than persons who have not studied it. If the citizens and the legislators would give the penologist more moral and financial support, we could go a long way toward solving our crime problem. It can’t be solved simply by “putting teeth in the law” or increasing the penalties.

If the leading citizens in a community would make it a point to visit their state prison, talk with the warden, then return to their communities with a better understanding of actual down-toearth prison problems, they would have taken one of the most important and most effective steps toward a solution of our crime problem.