November 17, 2011

Setting the record straight, Part 2: The success of the merger depends on the implementation of the SAFE Parole Act

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT, a series of articles presented by the Coalition For Fair Criminal Justice Policies to explain and support the SAFE Parole Act.

Part 2: The Success of the Merger Depends on the Implementation of the SAFE Parole Act, by Larry White (delivered at the NYS Assembly's Nov. 10 Public Hearing on the DOCCS Merger).

I believe with great conviction that incarcerated individuals are stakeholders in every aspect of the correctional and parole process, and therefore should have meaningful involvement in the operation of the processes that affect their lives and liberties.

The recent legislative changes that were enacted in conjunction with the merger of Dept. of Corrections and Community Supervision and the Division of Parole, including the development of Transitional Accountability Plans and the implementation of Risk and Need Assessment Instrument(s) provide tools that are potentially helpful to refocus the roles of Corrections and Parole in preparation for successful reentry, but completely fail to address the need for those under custody to have direct involvement and input in the very processes that directly affect their release from incarceration.

Although the Transitional Accountability Plan in theory does allow for participation by inmates in the construction of their individualized plan, there is no general policy or directive that requires this. There is also nothing that categorically provides that at every stage of the correctional process the individual inmate shall be informed of exactly what he/she must accomplish or achieve in order to be released on parole. It is this involvement that creates buy in and empowers personal transformation. Without such information the inmate cannot chart a course of involvement in the correctional process that he/she feels certain will lead to successful parole release.

Both the TAP and the Risk and Need Assessment Instrument have the potential to make clear to a person in prison what is expected of him or her and why. Under the TAP, IF the original model is followed, each inmate will participate in the development of their treatment plan, and thus will have a clearer understanding of what they must achieve. That is a very big “if.” The challenge will be whether New York follows the original model, and if line staff can accept a model in which people in prison participate in their own plan.

The Risk and Needs Assessment Instrument and the Transitional Accountability Plan together have the potential to provide each inmate with a clear indication of what is required for successful release to parole and community supervision. Inmates could be informed of these requirements at each stage in the correctional process when the TAP and the Risk and Needs Assessment are updated. Inmate participation in the rehabilitation process is increased when they are informed of what is required for their release from imprisonment and when they have an opportunity to take part in setting those goals. At this stage of the merger it is entirely unclear whether this is how the Tap and Risk and Needs Assessment will be utilized and implemented. I feel compelled to express my doubts and concerns.

Perhaps we need to follow the path of places like Norway and other European countries that have decreased the primacy of punishment and increased the use of proven programmatic approaches to behavioral and cognitive change that lead to law-abiding conduct. The prevailing primacy of punishment that guides our correctional system fails to provide an environment that encourages a personal, stakeholder approach to inmate involvement in the rehabilitative process.

I would like to address the use of Risk and Need Assessment Instruments in the parole release process. Risk assessments are essentially predictions of future behavior and are subject to error. There are no 'laws' of behavior that can be applied to a set of circumstances to determine the behavioral outcome that will follow. Criminal behavior, in particular, is motivated and supported by an unquantifiable number of factors; therefore to assess an individual as 'high risk' is not to say that he or she will indeed recidivate. Despite its shortcomings, risk assessment can, to a certain extent, differentiate offenders who pose a significant risk for re-offending in the future from those who are likely to refrain from committing future offenses. It can also help identify needed support services.

It appears that the risk assessment instrument that DOCCS intends to use will contain “seriousness of the offense” as a factor to determine current dangerousness. From my perspective, the nature of the offense is not a useful tool in determining who should be released and if in fact they are ready for reintegration. The seriousness of the crime has no relevance as a predictor of whether the person will commit that crime again. In addition, the process for utilizing the risk and needs assessment instrument should be transparent. A person appearing before the parole board should be provided with a copy of the scored instrument in advance and the decision should include an explanation of how the instrument was used to make the release decision.

What is sorely missing from the legislation under discussion that accompanies this merger is the requirement that the Board of Parole provide the parole applicant with specific requirements for actions to be taken, programs or accomplishments to be completed, or changes in performance or conduct to be made, or corrective action or actions to be taken, in order to qualify for parole release. As soon as the requirements have been successfully completed and the parole applicant's institutional record has been satisfactory during the time between the previous and current parole board hearing, release shall be granted.

From: the Prison Action Network, in Building Bridges, November 2011.