Use of Evidence-Based Decisionmaking Tools, Policies and Guidelines

Dimensions That Typically Shape Parole Guidelines

In this section we will explore a  variety of factors that are typically of concern to parole Board members as they weigh the decision to grant or deny parole. 


Punishment, or holding offenders accountable for their crimes, is an intrinsic element of a criminal sanction.  Whether and how parole Boards consider this dimension in their decisionmaking and decisionmaking guidelines varies widely across states.  In some states (e.g., Pennsylvania), the sentencing court has primary responsibility for assessing the appropriate level of punishment in terms of how much incarceration time a person must serve so as to assure that time-served is commensurate with the severity of the crime.  This is expressed as a range, determined by the eligibility date for parole on the lower end, and the expiration of sentence, or mandatory release date on the upper end.  Any amount of time served, within that range, is defined by the sentencing court (in such a sentencing structure) as neither too little—nor too much—time served to assure appropriate accountability.  In this sort of situation, the parole Board does not have a major role in establishing the limits of punishment.  In some states, however, the sentencing structure is much more "indeterminate", and parole Board members have responsibility—often instructed specifically by statute—to assure that "enough time" is served so as not to "depreciate the seriousness of the crime." 

It is important to observe, here, that consideration of appropriate punishment is separate and distinguishable from the concerns about risk reduction and protection of the community from the offender once released.  This perspective does not draw heavily upon the research on effective interventions—which guides decisions as to future risk and effective ways to reduce that risk.  Rather, the concern about "enough time" to assure appropriate accountability is a "non-utilitarian" concern, that is based more upon the principles inherent in the use of punishment of past deeds.  These principles include fundamental fairness ("similarly situated" offenders serve similar amounts of time), proportionality (the punishment is in proportion to the severity of the crime—more serious crimes deserving more time, less serious crimes deserving less time),  and parsimony (do not utilize more punishment than needed to accomplish the accountability goals). 

It is possible to incorporate a consideration of appropriate punishment in a guidelines structure—often by defining a range of expected time to be served based on a combination of offense severity as one dimension, and risk as a second dimension.  Once such a framework is put into place, it is important to track the degree to which the guidelines are assuring fairness—are similarly situated offenders serving roughly similar amounts of time?

Risk Reduction

Virtually all paroling authorities are concerned with public safety and assuring (to the extent possible) that individuals released on parole have a good probability of successfully completing their parole without re-offending.  A typical way in which guidelines incorporate an evidence-based approach to this goal, is to incorporate, in some formal way, the results of a standardized risk assessment process or tool (or set of them) into the guidelines.  Often a guidelines framework will incorporate not just the use of risk assessment, but will also consider in some way whether offenders who have been assessed in the past as at medium or high risk to reoffend have completed appropriate risk reduction programming.  A guidelines framework, for instance, might indicate that a low risk offender, who has served an appropriate amount of time to assure accountability for his or her crime, would be rated by the guidelines as likely to parole—even without programming.  On the other hand, an individual assessed at high risk to re-offend might require completion of programming specifically geared to his or her criminogenic needs before being classified by the guidelines as a good candidate for parole.

Institutional Behavior

Often parole Board members focus upon behavior while incarcerated as a key factor in making release decisions.  The research is somewhat unclear on this point, indicating that some types of prison misconduct are not related to post prison performance.   And, assuming that a Board has a good set of risk assessment tools—that are both valid and reliable for its population, the risk dimension is probably best handled in this way.

On the other hand, some Boards have concluded that, as part of a state's correctional system, they want to support order and safety within the institutions of their state.  In that instance, a Board might adopt, as part of its guidelines, that misconduct—at a specified level of severity, and within a certain time frame—would indicate, according to their guidelines, that such an offender was not a good candidate for parole at the present time.

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