Does tinkering with our long-standing parole system actually increase public safety?
In Oliver Stone’s recent sequel to the classic film Wall Street, we are treated to a scene of Gordon Gekko standing in line awaiting his release after years in jail. The camera is focussed tightly on Gekko’s soft but slightly wrinkled hands as he accepts the return of items in his property bag that were seized from him two decades ago when he began his incarceration. “One watch. One ring. One gold money clip with no money in it,” the desk officer intones. The camera then pulls out and up for the shot the audience has all been anticipating. “And one mobile phone,” he says slapping down a device the size of a brick that today’s youth would be forgiven for mistaking as a lunchbox rather than a cell phone.
While I recognize the dangers of drawing too many object lessons from Hollywood cinema, that brief scene encapsulates much of the public’s misunderstanding and misapprehension of the Canadian parole system. The shrill cry from conservative legislators and concerned citizens is a common refrain: “Ten years should mean ten years – not seven.” It is an argument that is compelling in its simplicity and difficult to debate until one engages in a broader discussion of the complex mechanics of a criminal sentence.
When a Judge makes an order for a ten year custodial sentence, that decade encompasses the entirety of the offender’s lifespan to be spent under the supervision of the custodial criminal justice system. How we deconstruct that decade is a fair subject for debate but the starting point must be that the length of sentence pronounced by the Judge is all that we have to work with. If we choose to legislate that offenders serve 100% of their sentence behind bars, we must be prepared for the inevitable consequences of releasing someone back into society after years of separation and isolation with absolutely no safety net nor any lawful way to supervise their reintegration. I opened this discussion with the Wall Street clip in order to demonstrate just how changed the world would appear to an offender being released after a lengthy sentence. I have seen clients released from custody after much shorter sentences and being handed other relics from their property bags rendered obsolete by the passage of time during their sentences: subway tokens long since expired, keys to a home long since repossessed. Our expectation that we can successfully reintegrate people incarcerated for any length of time by simply releasing them into society with a pat on the back and a tip of the hat is wildly naive. One would never expect zoo officials to reintroduce animals to the wild by simply parachuting them onto the savannah from which they came. That would ensure the death of the animal, other creatures in its neighbouring habitat, or both. Yet that is precisely the tactic proposed for potentially violent criminals by proponents of the anti-parole camp.
The alternative – though by no means a perfect system – is a phased or gradual reintroduction into society monitored by a competent parole system. In the Canadian system, that typically results in statutory release after serving two thirds of the custodial sentence imposed. An offender thus released would be subject to constant monitoring – and assistance – by his or her parole officer. They may be placed in a half-way house to facilitate reintegration or be directed into employment retraining programs. Offenders will frequently be assigned to non-custodial treatment programs to deal with underlying drug or alcohol dependencies that brought them to jail in the first place. Missteps on the road to reintegration while on parole can be dealt with by the statutory powers of the parole officer.
Parole is able to incentivize positive behaviour by engaging a carrot-and-stick approach. Failures can be punished by revocation of parole resulting in the offender returning to jail to complete the remainder of their sentence. The prospect of early parole is the primary force motivating positive pro-social conduct while incarcerated. Take away parole and an inmate is left with no tangible reason to choose good conduct over bad while in jail.
So long as we have not abandoned the primary goal of our criminal justice system – rehabilitation – an equitable system of parole is a positive sentencing force that should be strengthened and encouraged rather than being vilified and attacked.