40 percent of parolees fail in two years, study finds
By Jessica Webster and Walter Wright
Advertiser Staff Writers
About 40 percent of Hawai'i's parolees return to prison within two years of being released, but longer sentences are not necessarily the solution to crime prevention, according to a report released by the attorney general's office yesterday.
Hawai'i's parolees may need more drug treatment, better jobs and nicer friends to be successful outside of prison, said researcher Janet Davidson-Coronado.
The study of 314 prisoners paroled in 1998 suggests that whether parolees fail is not related to time spent in prison, but that prior criminal history is the biggest predictor.
The next most important factor is whether the parolee had a conventional lifestyle before going to prison good companions, no drug use, a good and steady job.
"We know that a criminal history is relatively static and we can't go back and change that," said Davidson-Coronado. "But a conventional lifestyle is something that can be addressed."
Other factors, such as ethnicity, intelligence and education, alcohol problems and emotional and personal stability, were statistically insignificant.
The study showed that most people had parole revoked for technical reasons, including drug use, but 10 percent returned to prison because they were convicted of a serious crime.
The U.S. Criminal Justice Institute reports the national recidivism rate is about 33 percent over a three-year period. But that estimate can range as high as 40 to 60 percent, depending on the reporting organization.
Paul Perrone, chief of research for the Hawai'i attorney general's office, said he is not aware of a reliable "national average" recidivism or parole revocation number because there are few national collaborations on the subject and every state reports the figures differently.
Hawai'i Paroling Authority chairman Al Beaver said the results of this study were not particularly surprising, but may help his lobbying at the Legislature.
"I requested this study because the philosophy I brought to this board was one of being tough on crime and compassionate with treatment. I wanted to know if we were doing things right," said Beaver. "I think of myself as a parent trying to raise some children here who have crossed the line and had bad behavior. Lack of education and lack of proper human relationships ... it can make them go downhill really fast."
As the nation's lawmakers wrangle over policy on mandatory minimum sentences for criminals, Beaver said the Hawaii Paroling Authority is doing its part to recognize other factors that contribute to high recidivism rates.
But Beaver said he needs more money for treatment and education programs and more parole officers if the expectation is to rehabilitate and train.
"We don't want the criminal justice system to be overburdened with new crimes committed by released individuals," said Beaver. "And we don't want to be sending people who need treatment to what is essentially a criminal's college, showing people how to become criminals."
Perrone said increasing programs, not changing the time served, is the key issue, because public safety and an appropriate response to the seriousness of a crime also motivate sentencing and parole decisions.
The findings come at a time when Hawai'i judges are reducing maximum sentences slightly while the Hawai'i Paroling Authority is increasing substantially the average minimum time to be served.
Maximum court sentences in a 1997-98 sample averaged 8.4 years, but dropped to 7.3 years in a 2000 sample.
The Hawai'i Paroling Authority among the most powerful in the country in determining the amount of time prisoners actually serve increased the average minimum sentence by a third, from 3.1 years to 4.1 years, during that period.
The board was toughest on those who had committed violent crimes (average time increased from 4.5 to 6.4 years) and property offenses (2.2 to 3.2 years), and easier on drug and "other" offenses (about a month added to minimum sentences of less than three years).
The board's rationale appears to be based partly on keeping people in prison so they can receive treatment, the study indicated.
But "the major obstacle to ... this intervention policy is that the (board) doesn't have sufficient treatment resources to meet the perceived demand," the researchers said.
With few programs available, the board uses its other tool increased prison time in hopes it will expose prisoners to more of the programs that do exist, the study concluded.
The report, supervised partly by Gene Kassebaum, professor emeritus at the University of Hawai'i's Social Science Research Institute, said the parole board needs a better system of case records to evaluate and supervise parole, and a way to evaluate the treatment programs it recommends.
At the same time, the report said, the board should have its own money to buy program services in the community rather than rely on outside providers.
Parole officers need more mental health resources for parolees, and more parole officers should be hired to handle the large number of cases they receive, the study said.