As the day's panels progressed, it became quite clear that every step of the correctional process was impacted not only by what happened earlier, but also by what happened later. Parole violations, and parole risks, are enormously important considerations for prison population size; also, the phrase "public safety" had so far remained unexamined. Our panelists for the Dangerousness, Risk, and Release panel were going to help us unpack and question the assumptions and considerations underlying our release policies.
Professor Jonathan Simon started by drawing an intriguing analogy between our risk assessment process for crime and for cancer. Why are we so willing to examine evidence-based, empirically tested risk rates for the latter, while at the same time keeping the real risk levels for the former clouded in a mist of public fear? A brief look at the genealogy of this fear revealed our collective "stranger danger", generated gradually by Manson and other iconic fear figures, as well as by presidential assassinations. This public fear was generated and perpetuated by government officials of all stripes; a brief look at republican and democrat governors revealed their unified position on issues of public safety. The wall-to-wall opposition to the passage of Prop 5, led by Schwarzenegger and supported by others, was a good demonstration of what Mark Leno had said earlier in the day: no one, regardless of political association, wants to appear soft on crime.
Simon highlighted four important points in respect to our culture of fear. First, he said, risk assessment is a very difficult thing to do. Violence is highly situational, rather than an individual's pesronal trait. Second, while CDCR asks for increased budget to lock up Level IV inmates, the decision to classify inmates as Level IV goes unexamined, and it may well be that this is yet another example of risk overestimation. Third, we must not forget that the supposedly neutral "risk factors" always carry with them social factors, such as race and class, and by doing so, perpetuate stereotypes and generate more demographic divides; and, finally, mass incarceration itself interacts with the broader problem. The mention of feeble, elderly lifers on breathalyzers as "public risks" denied parole was nothing short of absurd. Instead, suggested Simon, why not direct our public safety concerns toward more urgent, and less stigmatizing, needs, such as training our prisoners to help with the very real public risks posed by disasters such as Katrina? Our labeling of people who helped others during the hurricane as potential looters and rapists is very telling of our tendency to allow moral panics about crime cloud the real sources of concern.
For some, however, objections to release are based on a much more private threat to Safety. Shadia Merukeb, a victim consultant with the Alameda County DA's office, provided the victims' perspectives on parole. A great part of the problem for victims, she explained, consists of a lack of familiarity with a difficult system, which does not conform to what victims expect based on their crime-TV experiences. Long before the passage of Prop 9, Alameda County provided rights to victims, but without assistance these often went unutilized. The challenges a victim faces in terms of presence in parole hearings range from simple issues of transportation to far away prisons (fees, schedules, and child care!) to issues of fear and concern; often, the victim has to encounter the offender at rather close range, or wait with the offender's family in the waiting room for the parole hearing. Under these circumstances, the victim advocates fill in the gaps for DAs and parole agents who are unable to provide them with the unique assistance that they require.
The parolees' perspective was provided by Robin Rederford, community liaison for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. The problem with release, explained Rederford, lies in releasing people completely unprepared for life on the outside, and with the same substance abuse and unemployability issues they went into prison with in the first place. The return home becomes a frightening prospect when one does not have a supportive family outside; having been humiliated and dehumanized, one has to rebuild one's life with precious little in the way of resources. Some housing programs actually become unavailable to those with criminal convictions. The concern with public safety, said Rederford, might be greatly alleviated if people were offered services and opportunities for employment which would preclude them from parole violations.
Finally, we heard the CDCR's perspective on parole reform from Evelyn Lara-Lowe, Deputy Regional Administrator for Parole. She assured us (and I believe her!) that the CDCR has no interest in bringing people back into prison. The issue of general parole is a legal given, which CDCR has to work with; she was willing to concede that there are people on parole who do not need to be under supervision. Ironically, those are the people who actually complete parole without violations. The problem is, said Lara-Lowe, lack of resources. Parole agents, and professional staff, are extremely busy and overloaded; support needs to come from the community, which is often inhospitable to formerly incarcerated people. Also, it is problematic to provide the same level of services in remote places with a relatively small parolee population.
The questions from the audience were absolutely fantastic. We got to discuss parole caseload, as well as to question the link between victimhood and punitiveness. One commentator, a psychiatrist for CDCR, said she couldn't think of a better way to make people dangerousness and unsafe than to house them in a CDCR prison.