Monday, January 14, 2002

Parole violations up sharply

Tougher rules return more convicts to prison

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        More convicted felons than ever are being sent back to prison for violating parole.

        Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky all have seen sharp increases during the past decade in the number of parolees who break the rules and return to prison.

        Those increases have contributed to a 50 percent jump in the number of parole violators nationwide, from 132,000 in 1990 to 198,000 in 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

        Parole officials say tougher rules, expanded drug testing and less tolerant parole officers have made it more difficult for ex-convicts to get away with bad behavior.

        The changes are part of a fundamental shift in the way parole works. The goal of rehabilitating ex-convicts now comes with a greater emphasis on punishing them for making mistakes, even relatively minor ones.

        In Ohio, parole violators made up 17.6 percent of those sent to prison in 1999, up from 12.9 percent in 1990.

        In Kentucky, the numbers rose from 27.5 to 31.9 percent over the same period; and from 5.3 to 9.6 percent in Indiana.

        Those statistics mean that thousands of ex-convicts — more than 3,000 in Ohio alone — are going back to prison each year for violating parole.

        The new approach can be costly. Taxpayers must pay more — sometimes millions of dollars more — to monitor parolees and to house the violators who are sent to prison.

        But law enforcement officials say that's a small price for keeping potentially dangerous criminals off the streets.

        In years past, they say, ex-convicts took advantage of a parole system that too often turned a blind eye to parole violations.

        “I think the parole authorities are cracking down,” said Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen. “Parole is a privilege. If you violate, you should have to pay a penalty.”

        More and more, the penal ty is a return to prison.

        A recent Justice Department study found that parole violators nationwide accounted for 34.8 percent of all people sent to prison in 1999, up from 28.8 percent in 1990.

More accountability
               The upward trend began in the early 1990s as parole systems came under increasing pressure to better monitor their parolees.

        Parole boards responded by requiring more supervision and imposing more rules. State legislatures stiffened the penalties for violators.

        “The rules are more strict,” said Andrea Dean, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. “Society expects these people to be held more accountable.”

        Accountability was one of the goals when Ohio legislators approved the “truth in sentencing” law in 1996. Although the law focused on how inmates are sentenced to prison, it also created a new way to monitor them after their release.

        Parole officers were told to check in more often with the parolees and to arrest them immediately for violations that once may have been tolerated.

        Parolees began going to jail for shoplifting, drug use, alcohol abuse and technical violations such as failing to report to their parole officers at a specified time.

        “Back in 1990, if Johnny failed to report, it might be OK,” Ms. Dean said. “Now, it's not OK.”

        The theory behind the tougher stance is that tolerating minor offenses emboldens parolees to commit more serious crimes.

        “If these folks are caught on a technical violation, we're getting them back in the system before they do something worse,” said Pamela Trautner, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Justice Cabinet. “We're keeping tabs on them.”

        She said Kentucky made new rules for parolees throughout the 1990s, which required more visits with parole officers, more treatment programs and more drug testing.

Expanded drug testing
               The expanded use of drug tests is one of the biggest reasons parolees get caught breaking the rules.

        Until inexpensive testing became widely available in the 1990s, parole officers had to catch parolees red-handed to charge them with a drug offense.

        Now they simply order a parolee to report every week or so for a random urine test. If the test comes back positive for drug use, there's little doubt the parolee broke the rules.

        “We have a better means of testing for drugs, and more testing is being done,” said Pam Pattison, spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Correction.

        The state now sends most drug violators back to prison for about three months, where they take part in drug treatment programs.

        In the past, Ms. Pattison said, they might have participated in a program while remaining free on parole.

        The tougher attitude has been embraced, for the most part, by lawmakers, police and the public. Some, however, worry that the system might become inflexible.

        Parole boards and officers now have less discretion to decide whether parolees deserve to go back to prison, and whether prison might do more harm than good.

        If parolees do go to prison, they often are uprooted from jobs and families. Taxpayers, meanwhile, must pay between $11,000 and $17,000 a year to house them.

        Margarette Ghee, chairwoman of the Ohio Parole Board, said the goal of rehabilitation should not be lost in the push for more stringent parole standards.

        For now, she expects the number of parole violators in prison to keep rising.

        “It seems the communities are getting tougher and tougher,” Ms. Ghee said. “They're saying that misbehavior should not be tolerated.”


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