Could we let the mob decide parole?: James Alan Fox

James Alan Fox 6:17 p.m. EDT
December 7, 2016

Americans believe they know better than the parole board. But that's dangerous.

Imagine if you will, as the late Rod Serling used to say in his prelude to episodes of The Twilight Zone, a world in which popular opinion rules. Imagine a society in which America votes to determine not only the best singer, the top model, the fanciest dancer and the funniest comic, but the winners of far more serious contests as well.

How whimsical would it be to create reality TV series for making weighty decisions in criminal matters to determine, for example, the fate of defendants in court or prisoners seeking parole release? It would be like Judge Judy, but with the verdict left up to the television audience, along the lines of the hit series American Idol.

"Tonight on American Parolee, hopeful inmates audition for their freedom, as viewers at home phone in or text their votes for approval or denial."

Sure there would still be a role for the seasoned members of the parole board. This expert panel would get to pose questions to the inmate/contestant and then comment on the sincerity of his or her responses. But the outcome would depend on the will of the people.

Why leave these matters in the hands of a select few who rarely have to take responsibility when their decisions turn out wrong? They aren't the ones to suffer when some dangerous criminal is set free only to murder or rape again.

We can trust that the TV audience will not jeopardize public safety. Given the pervasive "throw away the key" sentiment, it would be as difficult for an inmate who is parole-eligible (wink-wink) to win release as it is for the thousands who seek their big break in some nationally televised talent competition.

Of course, I'm not serious about this programming idea. Nor do I envision the folks at FOX (no relation) embracing the concept to fill the void now that the 15-season run of American Idol has ended. It would be incredibly unfair to allow such critical decisions to be based on public opinion informed only by a brief performance on the tube.

Notwithstanding my facetiousness, countless Americans believe they know better than the parole board, ready to second guess decisions based on extremely limited information gleaned just from news accounts. They feel they can tell if a convicted predator is dangerous without having to sit through a lengthy hearing, reviewing a thick case file of documents, or engaging in the kind of deliberative process that parole boards undertake.

A system introduced nearly two centuries ago, parole has several important functions. Not only does it allow punishments to be individualized based on the rehabilitative efforts and progress of a felon post-conviction, but as an incentive for good institutional behavior it contributes to maintaining order within the prison walls.

Despite the advantages, more than a dozen states and the federal government have virtually eliminated discretionary parole review in response to public distrust. And where parole remains in effect, it has become increasingly difficult to attain, especially in high-profile cases.

In Massachusetts, for example, outrage following the 2009 murder of a police officer by a convict on conditional release from a life sentence prompted the firing of five parole board members who had unanimously voted to free the prisoner (a Trump-like Parole Board Apprentice). The incident also led to a sharp reduction (from nearly as high as 50% to nearly as low as 20% ) in the paroling of lifers in the state.

Massachusetts is not alone in reigning in the parole process. In New York State, for example, the parole release rate has dropped from more than 50% to less than 20% over the past two decades.

Who would want to be appointed to the parole board these days? Who would want this thankless job, especially in a climate where decisions will be scrutinized so intensively that one could be kicked to the curb as quickly as Ellen DeGeneres and Mariah Carey were replaced as judges on American Idol?

So maybe letting the people vote isn't such a bad idea after all. At least then, the people will only have themselves to blame when the future doesn't turn out quite as anticipated.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors.