Our parole system focuses on control and punishment. What about reintegration?

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I served three years in prison, and five years on parole, for armed robbery. Today, I’m a double alumnus from UC Berkeley with a master’s degree in public policy. The support and resources I received when released from prison were integral to where I am today, and parole did not provide any of them. In fact, today’s parole system only emphasizes detecting parole violations and punishing parole violators.

Yet, this was not always the case.

Starting in the 1960s, parole began to shift away from rehabilitation and toward surveillance. Assembly Bill 277 is a bill that would have steered California away from that particularly harsh and overly punitive era of parole supervision in California, one that contributed to high rates of incarceration and prison’s revolving door. Unfortunately, AB 277 was held in suspense this year.

AB 277 would have provided “reintegration credits” for individuals on parole when they complete accredited or certified educational, job training and treatment programs. These reintegration credits reduce the total amount of time an individual must serve on parole. Reintegration credits are capped at 12 months of credit in any year and awarded only in years in which an individual on parole otherwise meets parole requirements.

OPINION

From personal experience, I know the flaws of the current system. The parole services I received were ineffective and the expectations were superficial: no contact with law enforcement and produce clean urine when tested. I took it upon myself to enroll in community college.

While on parole, my mother called me to tell me officers had searched her house while I was in school. When one of the officers asked where I was and she replied that I was in school, the officer scoffed incredulously. My parole officers had no idea I was excelling at academics and working to help improve my community.

Had AB 277 been implemented during my parole, I would have discharged from parole earlier and engaged in richer college experiences. For example, I would have been able share a dorm with compassionate, like-minded students without the apprehension and discomfort of having intrusive surprise visits that would subject everyone around me to being searched.

Additionally, my parole officer reprimanded me for not answering his phone call because I was in class, and to avoid future incidents like that I had to step out of class abruptly to take his calls. One day when I was in the library studying, my parole officer called. When I answered with a whisper, my parole officer jumped to the conclusion that I was doing something suspicious.

The idea of AB 277 is to transform a system that neither encourages nor rewards pro-social activities. I needlessly remained on parole for five years. The same week I discharged from parole, I also accepted an admission offer from the UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.

The State Legislature now has the opportunity to change parole from a system focused on recidivism to one that promotes social and economic reintegration. Treatment programs and institutions of higher education are precisely the kinds of opportunities that the formerly incarcerated need to become productive members of society. By incentivizing them through the parole system, AB 277 would have sent a strong message to people on parole about the importance of self improvement. It would also have helped to reorient the parole system to a focus on reintegration.

While criminologists used to think that “nothing works,” recent research shows that treatment and education do reduce recidivism. Research also shows that individuals leaving prison are eager for opportunities to change their lives for the better, and that they seek education and opportunities for meaningful work when they are released.

Those who invest in improving themselves after release should be supported and rewarded.

Clarence Ford is a graduate of the Goldman School of Public Policy and is currently a policy research associate at the W. Haywood Burns Institute. Ford wrote this op-ed in conjunction with David J. Harding, a professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley and the author of On the Outside: Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration.