Use of Valid Actuarial Assessments of Risk and Needs

Background and Context

State parole Boards in the United States vary widely on many dimensions—their level and type of discretion with respect to release, their case review and hearing practices,  their condition setting responsibilities, the degree to which they oversee post-release supervision, and the like.  Based upon working with paroling authorities for a number of years, the National Parole Resource Center has concluded that parole Boards, regardless of the nature and extent of their responsibilities, will find it important to reflect on their responsibilities in three important areas. 

By engaging in the process of developing such guidelines, parole Board members have the opportunity to develop a clearer, shared understanding of how all members view their responsibilities, and to define those areas of consensus that can be a basis for their guidelines.  The development of such guidelines also provides something of an "institutional memory" for Boards, outlining the process by which decisionmakers review cases, their frame of reference, and how the framework can guide decisions.  For parole Boards, where frequent turnover of members and chairs is an inherent aspect of their statutory origins, such guidelines can be an important tool in assuring continuity and in minimizing the uncertainty and turbulence that can accompany such frequent turnover.  The use and continuing refinement of guidelines can provide a framework for orientation of new members—and can provide an opportunity for both veteran and new Board members to work together to shape and improve guidelines and their use. 

The argument can be made that parole Boards that elect to operate exclusively as individual decision makers—voting on cases, but not working together to develop and agree on principles or guidelines—may be operating well within their statutorily-defined areas of responsibility.  However, it can also be argued that they do not benefit from the potential strengthening of their practices by sharing their individual knowledge, experience and expertise by creating a collaborative framework to guide their decisions.  By developing such a guidelines framework, parole Board members can serve as a policy-making team, rather than simply as a group of individuals using their best individual judgment to decide individual cases. 

If a Board's guidelines are made public, they also serve the purpose of communicating to key constituencies.  For offenders, the guidelines can communicate what the expectations of the Board are, and the degree to which their own efforts—particularly risk-reduction efforts—can positively impact their likelihood of parole.  For the public, guidelines can communicate the care and thoroughness with which a Board reviews cases, and the degree to which it has incorporated sound research into its decision making process.  For victims of crime and their families, guidelines can communicate the way in which their concerns are incorporated into the parole process.  Given the significant number of cases that must be decided by a parole Board, guidelines can be, importantly, a critical asset for the parole Board itself,  assuring that cases are reviewed consistently—assuring that the same factors are considered—and efficiently.

In the regrettable, but inevitable, situation  in which a parolee commits a terrible crime, the existence of a parole guidelines framework can also serve as a record of the parole Board's due diligence in reviewing all the relevant information in a case, and making the best decision possible.


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