Could we let the mob decide parole?: James Alan Fox
James Alan Fox 6:17 p.m. EDT
December 7, 2016
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.