Getting Out: The Paradox of Parole

By Jessica PishkoJanuary 17, 2017

Getting Out: The Paradox of Parole

On the Parole Board by Frederic G. Reamer

SANDRA DAVIS-LAWRENCE was convicted for first-degree murder in 1982 and sentenced to life with parole. On her fourth try before the parole board, in 2005, she was found suitable for parole. During her over 20 years in prison, Davis-Lawrence became a model prisoner. She had no disciplinary infractions (a near-miracle), earned two degrees, mentored other women, accepted responsibility for her crime, and had a realistic plan set up for her release. Despite all of this, then Governor Schwarzenegger denied Davis-Lawrence’s parole, overruling the board, based on the fact that the original crime was “exceptionally callous.”

But Davis-Lawrence was lucky. A group of dedicated lawyers took up her case, bringing it to the California Supreme Court, which reversed Schwarzenegger’s decision and held that simply arguing the underlying crime was heinous was not enough to deny an otherwise reformed person parole. (Aren’t all murders heinous?)

This case, while the exception rather than the rule, presents the problems of the parole system in all of its frustrating and opaque glory. Unlike other aspects of the criminal justice system, the functioning of parole boards has not benefitted from public scrutiny. The hearings are held behind closed doors. And unlike a trial (which is, admittedly, also now quite rare), the process of determining an inmate’s parole relies largely on administrative rules and is not subject to the same rules of evidence or procedure — hearsay, rumors, and all other sorts of evidence are allowed. Potential parolees are not guaranteed a lawyer, nor do they have the right to question evidence used against their suitability. I have observed occasions where individuals before the parole board were told that they had violated a rule without being told what that rule was. (In one example, an individual had “illegally” possessed a guitar pick that was mistaken as a weapon by a non-musical correctional officer.)

Like a lot of agency-based procedures, parole hearings remain somewhat mysterious because the rules governing them involve a large degree of deference. As The Marshall Project has reported, many people accepted sentences assuming that they would be given the meaningful opportunity for parole, only to be denied again and again. The Model Penal Code, a document by lawyers for lawyers, even acknowledges this by saying, “No one has documented an example in contemporary practice, or from any historical era, of a parole-release system that has performed reasonably well in discharging its goals.”

The best way to generalize the common demand of a parole board is to assess whether an inmate poses a risk to the community. This is determined in all sorts of ways — psychological exams, victim testimony, family and friend testimony, certificates for rehabilitative programs, letters from correctional officers, et cetera. Furthermore, because there are almost no Constitutional guarantees when you are a convicted felon seeking parole, the process is ripe for being hijacked by political interests, such as, for example, strong statements by the victims, a powerful prosecutor, or an infamous crime (e.g., Manson family).

From my experiences speaking with men and women in prison, it’s a bit like getting into an Ivy League college. Inmates who just don’t know whether they may get released at their next hearing hedge their bets by attending Alcoholics Anonymous, even if they were alcoholics two decades ago, or by engaging in the theater or writing poetry or sharing insights with a group of veteran inmates. The idea is that the more activities you do, the more useful you seem and the more reason you give the parole board to think that you pose no harm on the outside. You might even be useful.

In his book, On the Parole Board, author Frederic Reamer gives what he casts as an inside look at the mind of a parole board member. Reamer has a lot of experience in this regard — he served as a parole board member from 1992 until January of this year. According to the author, the book is designed to give a balanced look at the responsibilities of the parole board. But the use of largely anecdotal evidence (most of which is presented in summary form, admittedly altered from its original context to protect the identities of the subjects) puts the book firmly in the category of literature I like to call “felons: just like us.” Part of Reamer’s purpose is to persuade the reader that most parole board members are trying to do the right thing, and most inmates are capable of rehabilitation. (Some are not in Reamer’s book — we will get to that later.)

The parole board serves an essential if unsung role in the criminal justice system by hearing the claims of incarcerated people and weighing evidence to determine whether they should be released into society. While parole boards all have some statutory guidance, there’s very little oversight. An inmate’s only appeal is a lawsuit, but prison officials are given such wide discretion that it is almost impossible to win.

Generally, parole hearings are a black box. I have reviewed parole hearing transcripts, and they often involve reviving the circumstances of the original crime — even if it happened 20 years ago — and requiring a certain amount of awareness on the part of the prisoner. The rules are also contradictory — if a person is innocent, for example, the failure to take responsibility can be held against him. On the other hand, the heinousness of the crime is also a factor, so if someone is innocent of the underlying crime, should that be a factor? No one really knows.

Having acquaintances who have sought parole, I see something like the rush of upper-middle-class children to obtain admission to Yale — they know they need to do something, but they aren’t sure what that is. Today, this leads to mass participation in drug treatment, anger management classes, veteran’s counseling, art therapy, creative writing, and mentorship — even when those classes no longer serve a purpose. (For example, an inmate might be asked by the parole board to attend Alcoholics Anonymous even if he hasn’t had a drink since entering prison 10 years ago.)

Reamer seems like a nice man, by which I mean that he tries his best to make decisions without the influence of politics or personal prejudices. He is sad when inmates don’t seem to understand the impact of their crime. He is heartbroken when victims tell their heart-wrenching stories — the worst ones are cases where the victim is a family member who was raped or assaulted by another family member. And, finally, Reamer marvels at the fact that people who do very bad things can seem, well, like the rest of us.

This is best exemplified throughout the book by Reamer’s relationship with Dave Sempsrott, a man sentenced to several life sentences for multiple murders. Sempsrott’s story reoccurs throughout the book and seems to serve as a reminder that some people defy easy categorization. Reamer first meets Sempsrott as part of a group he facilitates; through letters, he discovers that Sempsrott, who was taciturn and unemotional in person, indeed lived a rich inner life, which he could express in writing. As Reamer points out, Sempsrott’s situation presents the major obstacle he would encounter while hearing cases as a parole board member: Why do people commit such horrible crimes? Are some people truly evil?

Reamer basically comes to the conclusion that he isn’t sure — some inmates do seem “evil in the truest sense of the term” (among these he includes people who appear to have plotted their revenge against wives and other loved ones) and others appear to be the victims of mental illness and bad environments.

According to Reamer, parole requires a balancing of public safety, rehabilitation, and good old-fashioned punishment. There are several instances where Reamer denies parole simply because there hasn’t been enough punishment, even when he admits that prison serves no rehabilitative purpose for the inmate. I appreciated his honesty about the role of punishment — it makes more sense, in some ways, to be up-front that certain crimes will deliver certain consequences, regardless of the perpetrator.

A great deal of the book deals with victims. Perhaps some background will be useful: up until the last few decades, victims had few rights when it came to parole. The victims’ rights movement began in the 1970s as researchers began to categorize the responses of victims as something called “victimology.” Not coincidentally, this was contemporaneous with the increase in crime from the 1970s through the 1980s. Law enforcement agencies began to form offices to help victims emotionally and financially; those convicted of crimes became required to pay restitution for the benefit of victims.

One output of the victims’ rights movement was the involvement of victims in parole hearings. Today, we don’t question the role of victim impact statements (think of the letter writer in the Brock Turner case), but they weren’t actually allowed until 1982.

For some, the victims’ rights movement was a huge success, but it also places a burden on the system. Victim impact statements are incredible powerful, as the author attests multiple times. For example, in one horrific case where the inmate in question had endured horrific abuse as a child, manifesting in a crime, Reamer finds himself swayed by “the anguish-filled testimony by his victim,” which he says balances the inmate’s sincere desire to change. He points out repeatedly that meeting with victims undoubtedly influenced his thinking, especially victims of sexual abuse and similar crimes.

Undoubtedly, the victims of crime suffer terrible harm, but how much should this affect the treatment of someone seeking parole? Some victims may never forgive their assailant, and this is their right. But Reamer is honest when he says that listening to victims gave him “a deep-seated wish to punish the offenders who sat across from me at the hearing room table.”

What should be the place of retribution? If someone is sorry after a year, should he be permitted to be released? Maybe not. Reamer argues that part of his role is to consider not just whether the inmate has changed or poses a threat to public safety, but also whether or not the idealistic theme of justice has been served. Have they earned their release, not just through their works, but through the subjugation of their bodies?

Reamer does believe, however, that the bulk of the people he meets yearn for forgiveness and have worked to redeem themselves. They want to feel forgiven, which Reamer tied to several religious faiths. He also takes pains to point out that the word “redeem” literally means “repurchase” — in other words, there’s a transaction taking place. The inmate seeks both deliverance in a religious sense as well as a departure from the slavery that is incarceration. While Reamer never ties this to the great racial disparity that exists in the justice system (his book oddly doesn’t seem to “see color”), I think the analogy is apt. I was never sure whether the enduring whiteness of the book was a feature of Rhode Island or whether Reamer did not want to tackle that particular issue.

On the other hand, Reamer points out that some people may never regret their crime; they may continue to associate with people who would commit crimes in prison or they may just not be very sorry. He is also concerned that there are some incarcerated people who might “fake” their redemption, by pretending to be extremely religious, for example.

One way to deal with long prison sentences, according to some reform measures, is to grant a parole hearing earlier in the process. But is this meaningful release? If the parole board will simply object to the length of time served, what is the point of a hearing?

In California, it presents an odd situation where some inmates are released after their term is served — no strings attached. Others will present themselves before the parole board again and again, trying in vain to jump through the required hoops. Does the second group recidivate less? Evidence does suggest that “lifers” are actually the least likely to reoffend once released. But it’s unclear whether this is due to age and natural maturation or to the rehabilitative effects of prison and the encouragement of parole boards. Parole is, indeed hope, but because it can feel so arbitrary, it is also frustrating to those who are trying to divine what will be the right thing. To that extent, divorcing parole hearings and prison sentences from their context — the vast racial disparity that exists in the system — seems to ignore the systemic influences that make parole all the more infuriating for most people who earnestly seek it. I can’t blame those who give up seeking to repurchase their freedom.


Jessica Pishko graduated with a JD from Harvard Law School and received an MFA from Columbia University. She writes frequently on incarceration and the justice system.

LARB Contributor

Jessica Pishko graduated with a JD from Harvard Law School and received an MFA from Columbia University. She writes frequently on incarceration and the justice system.


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