For federal prisoners, the prospect of early release expired in 1987. As prisons bulge and recidivism persists, why is the parole ban still in place?
In 1982, when George Martorano pled guilty to charges of marijuana possession and drug conspiracy, he was expecting ten years in prison, at most.
Today, after 24 years, Martorano holds the honor of longest-serving nonviolent first-time offender in the history of the United States. He's all too ready to forfeit that mark of distinction, but if his sentence plays out as issued, he'll be looking at several decades more: Martorano is serving a life sentence for three years of transporting and selling marijuana. Despite his spotless prison record - not to mention his suicide-prevention volunteer work, his yoga practice and the 20 books he's written while incarcerated - he has no hope of being released.
Martorano is just one of almost 200,000 inmates in federal prison, many of whom have no chance for early release, thanks to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which abolished parole at the federal level. The toughening of prison legislation over the past 20 years has also meant longer sentences for nonviolent offenders, combining with the parole ban to prompt a sharp increase in the federal prison population. As it stands, the beefed-up federal prison system costs taxpayers $40,000 per year for every inmate, and it costs inmates whole decades of their lives.
"We're being warehoused," Martorano said in a phone interview. "It's taken a million dollars just to keep me in."
Since the parole ban took effect, the federal prison population has more than quadrupled, according to Bureau of Justice statistics.
In the past few years, the sentencing system has been slowly changing in other ways. For example, the US Sentencing Commission recently shortened its recommended sentences for crack cocaine offenses, and Congress has shown signs that it will consider bills addressing the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine. The Supreme Court is deliberating whether judges should be able to grant sentences that dip below established guidelines for sentence lengths.
However, Congress has taken no steps toward reversing course on federal parole. Although a bill to revive parole for federal prisoners has been introduced repeatedly in the House over the past few years, it has never made it to the floor for a vote. And an official at the US Sentencing Commission, who asked not to be identified, said he was not aware of any impetus that would bring back parole anytime soon.
As the prison population continues to explode, many influential voices in Congress and the public sphere are still touting a hardline philosophy when it comes to criminal justice, according to Representative Danny Davis (D-Illinois), who has sponsored the federal parole reinstatement bill for the last two Congresses.
"People don't want to be characterized as being 'soft on crime,'" Davis said in an interview. "They are still afraid that characterization will follow them. You would think that a country that is supposed to be as progressive as ours would've recognized that this approach is not working."