False Hope: How Parole Systems Fail Youth Serving Extreme Sentences

In our inflated U.S. prison system, parole is supposed to provide an incentive and a path to earn release from prison. Instead, in many states, the parole system is defective and reflexively denies release even to model prisoners who went to prison as teenagers, have already served decades in prison, and no longer pose a safety risk. After growing up in prison, atoning for their crimes, staying out of trouble, and completing all available rehabilitative programming, thousands of people who were sentenced when they were young are finding that the promise of parole is an illusion, no matter what they do to prove their worthiness for release. These young people will needlessly grow old and die behind bars when the parole system fails to do what it is intended to do: identify and release those who have worked for redemption and earned a second chance at freedom.

Despite extensive research that youth who commit even serious, violent offenses age out of crime and can be rehabilitated, our nation still incarcerates tens of thousands of people who were teenagers or in their early twenties at the time of their offense and are serving life or de facto life in prison.  For most of these individuals, the only real chance for release and to be reunited with their families comes from parole. However, prisoners incarcerated since their youth are routinely denied parole, long after they’ve grown, matured, atoned, and been rehabilitated, and in many cases, solely because of the crime they committed in their youth—not because of who they are now.

Parole boards are charged with the ultimate decision of who to release and when, but too often, they operate in obscurity, with little guidance and too much political pressure. In many cases, decisions about release are made in a matter of minutes, without ever meeting the applicant, and with no opportunity to evaluate the individual’s record.  These parole boards, composed of a handful of people tasked with tens of thousands of cases each year, have tremendous power but little incentive to grant release, even to people who are fully rehabilitated, have served decades of their sentence, and pose no risk to the community.  Even for people sentenced to life in prison as juveniles, the parole grant rates are abysmally low—for example, 0.5 percent of juvenile lifers were granted parole in Florida in 2015, and in Maryland, none have been granted parole in 20 years.

But despite this dismal picture, reforms to the parole system are possible and can ensure that deserving individuals, sentenced in their youth, will get a fair, meaningful chance to be released and reunited with their families. Instead of allowing these individuals to grow old and die in prison, the parole process can reward and incentivize rehabilitation and honor our moral obligation to those we send away to grow up in prison. 

Featured profiles from the report:

John Alexander

Christine Lockheart

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