WICHITA, Kan. — Since his release in January after serving time for a 2006 theft conviction, Lonnie Kemp has violated his parole conditions several times, getting drunk and kicked out of a halfway house and showing traces of marijuana in urine tests. If this were a few years ago, he almost certainly would be back in prison.
Similar parole violations after a previous theft conviction, in 1988, had repeatedly landed him back inside. In those days, parole was enforced with a spirit that officials recall, only half-jokingly, as “trail ’em, nail ’em, jail ’em,” overfilling the prisons but doing little to rehabilitate offenders.
Today, Kansas is a leader in a spreading national effort to make parole more effective and useful — to reduce violations and reincarcerations as it protects the public and seeks to help more offenders go straight. Mr. Kemp’s parole officer is keeping close tabs on him, but instead of sending him for a punitive stretch behind bars, he required Mr. Kemp to attend a substance-abuse program, made sure he had a stable home with a relative and helped him get a job with a construction company.
A similar transformation of the parole system has begun in several states including Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York and Texas. It has been prompted in part by financial concerns: more than one-third of all prison admissions are for parole violations, helping to drive an unsustainable surge in prison-building.
It has also been driven by evidence that conventional parole supervision is often a waste of resources. “If we sent him back to prison for 90 days, he’d have to start all over with his life again,” Kent Sisson, parole director for southern Kansas, said of Mr. Kemp. “Instead, he’s working, paying child support and getting a G.E.D.”
Mr. Kemp, 51, said: “Before, you didn’t want to have parole officers around, they’d send you back for almost anything. This time, I have positive people around me and I can call my parole officer any time.”
An influential study in 2005 by the Urban Institute concluded that parole supervision had little effect on the rate at which ex-prisoners were re-arrested.
“Parole is a system set up to find failure,” said Michael Jacobson, president of the Vera Institute of Justice in New York and a former chief of corrections and probation for the city. “If what you’re interested in is finding failure and putting people back in prison, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.”
New York Times