Case Study: Parole Board Robert, the Chair

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¶ … Parole Board

Robert, the chair of the parole board, is under pressure to relax the standards for parole because of the Governor's fears that if current overcrowding suits are successful, it will result in inmates being released under a federal process outside of the parole board's control. However, Robert is concerned that relaxing the current standards could result in the release of inmates more likely to re-offend than Robert feels is acceptable for a parole risk. The ethical dilemma appears to be whether Robert reduces the parole eligibility requirements, which would result in the release of more dangerous inmates than Robert feels is acceptable, or whether he does not reduce the parole eligibility requirements, which could result in the state losing control over parole requirements and the prison overcrowding scenario. The question is whether or not Robert should loosen the parole eligibility requirements.

Robert is motivated to try to keep the public as safe as possible from the risk posed by convicted criminals who have early release through parole. Therefore, he wants to make the decision that results in the greatest enhancement to public safety. Furthermore, if relaxing parole conditions results in an increased danger to the public, he may feel personal responsibility for that danger. On the other hand, if he does not relax conditions and the prisons stay as overcrowded as they currently are, then the state may lose control over the parole standards, which could result in an even greater risk to public safety. This occurred in 2009, when a federal court ordered California to reduce its prison population by one-third (Moore, 2009). However, Robert would not be personally responsible for lessening those standards. Therefore, even if the risk to the public were greater, Robert's sense of responsibility for it might actually be less. In this scenario, the reality is that either situation could result in the release of more dangerous offenders under the parole system, thereby increasing the risk to public safety.

However, this ethical dilemma is not as complicated as it seems when first considering the situation. Many times, ethical dilemmas appear to be a choice between two alternatives. However, rarely in the real world are there only two possible solutions to a problem. Instead, there are a wide variety of different possible solutions, which can help a person reach a desired result while still avoiding undesired side effects. In this situation, Robert wants to reduce the prison overcrowding while avoiding the release of criminals that he believes still pose a threat to society under the parole system. It has been presented as a choice between reducing parole requirements and risking losing control over the parole system to the federal government, which would also result in an increase in risk of release of violent prisoners.

As a chair of the parole board, Robert has some ability to impact prison overcrowding without changing the conditions for parole release. He could keep the conditions of parole release as they currently are, but make changes in another area to try to alleviate prison overcrowding. For example, when one looks at current prison overcrowding conditions, one sees that a number of people in prison are there because of parole violations. However, the severity of these parole violations may vary dramatically. For example, in North Carolina, "56% of new admissions to state prisons in 2009 were because of probation violations and 73% of those were because of technical violations like missing curfew or failing a drug screening" (Hunt, 2009). The problem is more dramatic in California, where "between 60,000 and 70,000 California parolees return to custody annually for violations. They may have failed a drug test, gone missing, or even committed a new crime for which they were not prosecuted" (Farrell, 2009). Robert could make changes to the types of parole violations that would result in a parolee being returned to incarceration, which would impact prison overcrowding, thereby reducing the threat that the pending lawsuit would be successful and that the federal government would be able to come in and take over parole conditions for the prison.

I believe that Robert's decision should be to refuse to loosen the requirements for parole. Instead, he should concentrate on developing a comprehensive plan to reduce the number of people who are returned to prison on non-violent parole violations. These violations may include things like positive drug tests or drug possession of amounts indicative of personal use, failure to report for parole meetings, and petty crimes like misdemeanors. Furthermore, the parole board could review people who had been returned to prison because of parole violations and release those who had been returned after one of those petty violations. This would result in a reduction in prison overcrowding without the increased risk of violent or dangerous offenders being released to society.

The Warden

William is the warden of a century-old correctional facility. His operating budget has been cut, which has resulted in him being unable to pay his correctional officers for overtime work or hire any additional or replacement employees. At the same time, he has experienced a dramatic increase in population of his prison, because of an aggressive arrest and prosecute campaign. The result is a facility that is overcrowded, which creates a dangerous situation for the workers and for the employees. William could help alleviate some of the overcrowding by using an off-site work release program. The problem with this program is that it does not have a risk assessment or screening process; therefore, his choices about which inmates to divert to this off-site work program would be based on guess work. William is scheduled to meet with the union representatives for the security officers working at his prison, to describe the steps he intends to take to ensure the safety of the officers working in the prison.

If William enacts the work-release program, he will immediately improve the safety of his facility. The danger in the facility is largely due to overcrowding. First, in an overcrowded prison, the officer to inmate ratio changes, so that each correctional officer is responsible for a larger number of inmates. This puts an immediate burden on correctional officers and makes it more difficult for them to control their environment. Furthermore, in most prisons the officer to prisoner ratio is the result of careful studies of how many officers are needed to control specific types of prisoners in specific environments. Changing this ratio increases the risk to officers. However, it is not only the change in the officer to inmate ratio that impacts safety. Instead, one has to look at how overcrowding changes the actual physical conditions of the prison, as well. When prisons are overcrowded, prisoners no longer reside only in cells. Instead, they may be diverted to "unconventional housing such as gymnasiums or sleeping on floors," which can make it difficult for prison staff to supervise them (WFSB Staff, 2011). Prison overcrowding also increases danger to inmates and correctional officers for the following reasons: reduced ability to classify inmates and house them appropriately; increased risk of the spread of disease; reduced access to mental health care; reduced access to recreational and exercise facilities; reduced access to visitation and telephones; lack of sufficient equipment and facilities to handle the population; inadequate emergency response teams; and an increased risk of assaults by inmates on officers and on other inmates (TASA Group, 2012). Any one of these problems presents a risk to the prison population, but the real risk comes from the problems interacting with one another. For example, an increased risk of spread of disease would lead to sick officers, which can contribute to understaffing issues, making it more difficult for officers to properly contain fights. Inmate-on-officer assaults may pose the greatest risk: in fiscal year 2010, there were 1,700 assaults by prisoners on staff in federal prisons (Davidson, 2012). Clearly, overcrowding poses a danger to prison staff and inmates, and enacting the work-release program would help mitigate some of those dangers.

Of course, implementing the work-release program comes with its own drawbacks, including additional risk to the community, as a whole. Because William does not have the resources to appropriately screen prisoners who are considered for the work-release program, there is a very big risk that some of these inmates will cause problems on the outside of the prison. This could subject people in the outside population to a greater risk of crime victimization.

However, I believe that William's ethical choice is clear; he should implement the work-release program. As the prison warden, his primary responsibility has to be the safety of the people inside the prison environment. He knows that the current overcrowding poses a high risk of danger to his employees and to the inmates. Moreover, if he allows the problem to continue unabated, he is likely to lose some of his staff members and the hiring freeze means that he will be unable to replace any staff members who choose to leave their jobs. This means that even a small… [END OF PREVIEW]

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