Parole and Probation

Courtesy of Denver Public Library - Western History Museum; a therapist talks to residents at Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center
Courtesy of Denver Public Library – Western History Museum; a therapist talks to residents at Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center

Currently, the U.S. keeps more than two million people behind bars and supervises an additional five million through probation and parole.[1] Despite the staggering eighty billion dollars being spent on incarceration, however, recidivism rates continue to rise. Studies show that a majority of prisoners released are back behind bars within three to five years of their release due to relapse into drugs and crime.[2] Why?  Recidivism is certainly a complex problem with multiple roots. We cannot blame a lack of willpower on the part of all prisoners, as many seek rehabilitation but cannot find it. Nor can rehabilitation programs and parole officers be blamed for high recidivism because even the most hardworking and effective of them are often faced with unmanageable caseloads. Understanding why so many released offenders find themselves back behind bars requires understanding of the lack of financial and public support that probation, parole, and reintegration programs have encountered since their inception. Adequate care and supervision for skyrocketing numbers of prisoners, parolees, and probationers is an enormous challenge. Building more prisons to ease overcrowding is no solution. A more sustainable course of action is to provide incarcerated persons, especially those with substance abuse problems, with viable transitions from or alternatives to prison, itself a destructive environment that not only perpetuates drug use and violence but also isolates inmates from the society in which they could otherwise be active and useful citizens.

Difficulties surrounding parole and probation in Colorado in the 1930’s, nearly eighty years ago, are strikingly similar to those judicial and corrections systems face today—including public confusion about the distinction between them. Probation occurs before or as an alternative to prison, providing an opportunity for the offender to function as a member of society under close supervision of a probation officer. The process of parole, on the other hand, is supervision after being released from prison, an institution isolating him from the outside world and necessitating his rehabilitation and reintegration into a community. The difference should be clear, but a 1938 report pointed out that the public often wrongly believes probation and parole are identical. As Ralph Wales noted in his study of probation and parole shortly before the World War II, “Perhaps the impression derives from the common belief that both are only gestures of generosity. Too often probation and parole are regarded as means of ‘giving another chance’ or ‘letting criminals off.’”[3] A perception of leniency extending up to the present may stems from inconsistency of proper supervision of offenders who both need to be rehabilitated and closely monitored. When they fail to succeed outside prison walls, these offenders are instead locked away, far from “given another chance,” after violating parole or reverting back to old habits of crime.

Good probation and parole systems can be invaluable in reducing incarceration rates, at least in theory. The National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement emphasized in the 1930’s the good that probation could do to retain an offender’s role within his community and avoid damage to his relationships and economic independence from imprisonment. “Probation avoids the shattering effect upon individual personality which so frequently follows imprisonment,” the commission noted. “The crime for which the man was arrested is not dramatized,” the report continued, “as a reason for disrupting the rhythm of his life.”[4] This humane judgment of the criminal and his or her right to dignity stands in contrast to the perception of criminality held by many contemporary Americans. The increase of recidivism rates suggests the inability of our probation or parole systems to make participants feel dignified.

Probation and parole are crucial not only in maintaining an ex-convict’s ability to function within society, but also in helping society protect itself from crime. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt noted the disparity between probation’s potential power and its perceived lack of power, saying:

There is no doubt that probation, viewed form the selfish standpoint of protection to society alone, is the most efficient method that we have. And yet it is the least understood, the least developed, the least appreciated of all our efforts to rid society of the criminal…by its intelligent extension, crime can be decreased, the overcrowded conditions in our penal institutions greatly ameliorated, and the necessity for building more and more prisons, for the needlessly and ineffectively spending huge prison budgets, reduced. . . .I hope that in all states we shall be continually decreasing the number of our prison guards and wardens and increasing the number of our probation and parole officers.[5]


Little did the president know in this excerpt of his speech, “Looking Forward,” just how much these particular issues would shape American corrections for the next eighty years and beyond.  Since FDR’s time, prisons budgets have expanded, new corrections facilities have been built, and more people have been crowded into them with little consideration of the potential of prison alternatives for reducing crime. Then as now understaffing and underfunding for parole, probation, and reintegration programs have resulted in less supervision than might have optimally supported reintegration.

In the thirties, sheriffs were called upon to do parole work in their spare time, when they had a variety of other duties to attend to and lacked proper training for the job. Although today specific officers are assigned to probation and parole, they are given far more cases than they can handle, forcing them to choose who to carefully oversee—up to 120 at a time—and whom they are therefore unable to guide away from dangerous activity. This lack of staffing has often had to do with the movement of funding to other areas of the prison system, particularly for the building of new facilities, even when those were less urgently required. The desire to spend money on building facilities instead of on probation, parole, or other prison alternatives was in the pre-WWII decade as in the later twentieth century largely due to the fact that locking people up seems like a “tougher” way of dealing with crime than rehabilitation and reintegration. Nixon’s War on Drugs in the seventies and Reagan’s campaign to “get tough on crime” in the eighties perpetuated an attitude that has continued into the present and negatively influenced our penal system by crowding it with people who really need social support rather than social isolation. The quicker, more simplistic way of dealing with the masses of prisoners has been to simply pile the incarcerated into new institutions without considering alternatives such as probation or drug courts.

The problems facing the Colorado parole and probation systems in the eighties and nineties were strikingly similar to those exhibited in the thirties, when these functions had been minimal. In both periods, few options were at hand for the treatment of offenders. Adults and even juvenile offenders were more and more likely to end up behind bars as the century went on.[6] From 1985-89, the rate of juveniles’ admissions to detention centers across Colorado increased by fourteen percent. This evidence suggests not only a lack of alternatives to incarceration, but also the court’s increasing use of shock incarceration as a “treatment tool.”[7] Lengthy sentences away from society however, often do not “cure” criminals of crime but have an opposite effect, leaving offenders worse off after release than when they entered the system. Difficulties getting a job, paying debts, drug addiction, and finding community support were and are among the most challenging obstacles offenders must face after being behind bars.

Release from prison continues to be an overwhelming and terrifying experience for many stepping outside prison gates. One of the greatest difficulties a released inmate must deal with is a feeling of alienation from the world he rejoins. Roy Stevens, a former inmate, notes, “The hardest part of prison life is trying to reintegrate back into the community.” Even a process as simple as choosing a breakfast cereal off a grocery store shelf with dozens of choices can be overwhelming, he says.[8]  Especially if an inmate lacks family and financial resources, he or she is without support in the period of urgent need surrounding his or her release. Yet even meetings with parole officers are often rushed due to the fact that any one individual is just one of many cases with whom an officer must deal. Steve Attencio, a prisoner released in 1986, said, “In my experience, you spend about seven minutes with a parole officer each week. They ask you the same things: Do you reside at your residence? Are you still working? Have you had any police contact?”[9] Thus, many new parolees are left to reorganize their entire lives in a world that not only sees criminals as alien, but one from which the experience of prison has isolated them. “With resocialization, you are inundated with all of the things that you left behind, the sensations of being free. The prison lifestyle is so ingrained that when you get out and experience getting a job and relationships, you think you know how to deal with them, but you don’t,” says Eddie Blea, who spent twenty-five years behind bars.[10] In cases like Blea’s, the free world now exists in a different decade than when an ex-offender last lived in it, with new technologies and social norms that did not exist many years before. The feeling of division between the offender and the outside world into which he or she emerges can be staggering.

Economic realities in combination with drug addiction can stack the deck against all but the most determined ex-offenders.  As one released convict states, “When I got out in 1986, they gave me a hundred dollars. When I got home I had four hundred in bills and rent to pay.”[11] Paying back rent, child support, and other debts presents an almost insurmountable obstacle in the context of difficulty in gaining employment, because private employers often discriminate on the basis of past criminal convictions.  Many parolees or probationers are re-incarcerated for failure to meet their financial portions of their probation requirements.  “It is hard to stay out of the streets—you miss the action. It is hard because when I sold dope, I could make so much money and now I have to struggle to pay for things like the rent,” says Susan Diggs, a former inmate at the Colorado Women’s Facility.[12] Facing a deadline to meet impending payments and knowing drug dealing can yield quick cash, many ex-offenders revert to selling and using controlled substances, especially if they have a history of drug abuse. Many years of research have shown that often, ex-convicts get trapped in a cycle: shortly after they are released, offenders go back to drugs linked with criminal behavior.[13] Re-arrested, they go back to prison for lengthy sentences only to go through the process all over again.


Parole Officers

Examining recidivism from the point of view of parole officers also lends insight into larger, more systemic problems. No matter how well-intentioned a parole officer may be, he or she can only be effective with a reasonable caseload.  Chase Riveland, executive director of Colorado’s DOC in 1986 said that “[m]ost parole officers make terribly good judgments most of the time, and work hard, but due to their workload aren’t able to provide a truly responsible parole program.” Riveland added that the State had thirty-nine parole officers handling a total of about 3,500 cases.[14] Troublingly, in laying out the framework for improvements to the parole system in 1938, recommendations published by the National Probation Association had stated that an officer’s caseload should not exceed fifty.[15] This suggested caseload was half of the more than one hundred cases most officers had in their workload by 1998.[16] Colorado state senator Dennis Gallagher called the matter “unconscionable, a scandal.”[17] From 1992-1997 alone, the number of parolees increased by fifty-eight percent and it continues to rise today.[18] This burden essentially forces parole officers to spread themselves thin or choose the cases to which they need to pay closest attention and leave the rest with the bare minimum of attention.

Lack of understanding and poor communication between the state’s corrections administration and the body of individual parole officers has also proved detrimental to Colorado’s parole system. In 1988, tension between a division of Colorado parole officers and DOC director Walter L. Kautzky’s leadership manifested when seven parole officers were asked to transfer to other jobs at a time when the system needed them most. The officers were angered, saying, “By reducing parole officers, you increase the risk to the public and decrease the service we are supposed to provide to the public and to the parolees.” Many of these officers’ colleagues kept quiet however, as officers feared that those who spoke out against Kautzky would face consequences.[19] This specific incident may have been relatively small, but it demonstrates the lack of open communication between officers and corrections management—a concern maintained in the present day. A survey of parole officers in 2015 documented that the majority in Colorado feel overworked, underpaid and underappreciated. Ninety-five percent of those participating indicated that they do not feel upper management truly cared about them. Seventy-five percent believed their job is very dangerous.[20]

The parole process and transition of former prisoners back into society is made much easier when those newly released individuals have received effective rehabilitation. Although more and more thoughtful programs are continually being designed and instituted, not all rehabilitation is created equal. Most rehabilitation and preparation programs are well-intended but under-resourced. Alcoholics Anonymous is one example, in which program staff have noted radical understaffing.[21] Sometimes only a few inmates find places in a program of potential benefit to many. Susan Diggs, for example, in order to get into vocational maintenance classes at the Colorado Women’s Correctional Facility, had to beg for a spot in a program for ten to fifteen inmates until she got in and was in the program for a year.[22]

The greatest gap in rehabilitation, however, has been that historically it has been unavailable outside prison walls—at least none funded by the state. Once former inmates leave the prison walls, they have often found themselves back at square one. “You teach an inmate computer programming the first year he’s here,” said Julius Darby, a returning prisoner, “but it might be seven or eight years before he can use it.”[23] What prisoners need are educational and rehabilitative resources immediately after they are released so that they can adjust to the many choices with which they are immediately faced. A few newer, successful programs in the Canon City/Colorado Springs area—and analogues in other states—show what might work, if established on a larger scale, to remediate mass incarceration. The ones with more tangible evidence of success are the best windows into how the state prison system can use small triumphs as blueprints for larger-scale chances.

Friends in Transition was established in 1990 in Canon City as an entirely privately funded program. This program, ongoing today, takes as its mission to match inmates with volunteers sixteen months before and one year after being released from a correctional facility in the area. Because the program is one-on-one, volunteers are able to offer what parole officers try to do fully but cannot, including assistance with basic needs such as food, clothing, employment, housing, gathering information and resources, and often, most importantly, a sense of friendly support.[24] Often after spending more than a decade in prison, released offenders frequently have no other friend to turn to otherwise. Friends in Transition is fully appreciated and practically relied upon by the Department of Corrections. In 1996, Lee Hendricks, a regional administrator of the DOC, said, “To put it humbly as I can – we need you guys!” At the time, prison chaplains providing necessary spiritual support to prisoners were all but dismissed, the staff reduced and serving one or two days a week instead of five or six.[25] Friends in Transition is a useful model not only because of its effectiveness in helping inmates to get back on their feet, but also because it gives the community an opportunity to see inmates as human beings. The program is certainly not perfect, as applicants far outnumber volunteers and some volunteers may unaccountably abandon an, but Friends in Transition has seen many more successes than setbacks and has been arguably more effective in reintegration efforts than the current parole system has.[26]

On a national level, a recent emergence of “smart” justice systems is starting to explore more effective options in an effort to reduce recidivism. Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) is a particularly successful model for effectual parole and probation practices. The program’s key components include reliable monitoring of drug use—testing participants regularly and randomly—and administering quick, definite, but relatively moderate penalties for violations.[27] If a participant tests positive on a drug test, he or she is referred to drug treatment instead of having probation revoked and getting sent to jail, as occurs in other states. Because prison is an environment where addicts have access to smuggled drugs and may further their dependency, rehabilitation is infinitely more beneficial.[28] For non-drug-related violations, participants are penalized with short, two-to-three day sentences, as opposed to a six-month minimum imposed in other states. If a participant is employed, he or she is made to serve additional jail time on weekends so as not to risk losing his or her job.[29] This program’s study period has produced enough evidence to suggest that shorter sentences are more effective in reducing crime than longer ones, and that sending offenders to jail is not conductive to their ability to contribute to the community. The outcomes of the program after just one year showed that participants were fifty-five percent less likely to be arrested for a new drug crime and seventy-two percent less likely to use drugs.[30] By facilitating the ability to gain employment and favoring rehab over incarceration, HOPE gives its participants the agency and sense of self-worth to change their lives.

Although the past ten years have thus seen more programs aiming to curb recidivism, social and political forces impelling mass incarceration countervail these efforts, raising the question of how Americans understand criminality. In the past eighty years, and especially since the War on Drugs, America has dehumanized ex-offenders by putting them at a disadvantage in nearly every way and removing from them their dignity. TVs plastered with images of mug shots of predominantly minority criminals, newspapers with headlines like “Killer Eligible for Parole,” “Rapist, Manslaughter Accomplice among Inmates up for Parole,” and “Shooter among Inmates Set for Parole Hearings” cause further public fear of criminals and forever define them by the worst thing they have done. When a human being has been stripped of all self-respect and feels as though he or she has no dignity to lose, how can he or she help but perpetuate the stereotype that has been thrust upon him or her? Programs that succeed in deterring crime are not those that crush the prisoner under a weight of oppression, but rather those which restore faith in the criminal’s ability to serve as an upstanding member of society. The future of our parole and probation systems, along with our entire structure of mass incarceration, is largely dependent on our attitude towards our nation’s underclass. In order to reduce crime and recidivism, we as a nation must offer through our policies and portrayals towards ex-offenders their humanity. We must promote the notion that they should not be forever defined by their biggest crime and be given the chance to both restore their own dignity and contribute to society.


[1] Originally researched and drafted by Katie Lawrie

[2] United States, Executive Office of the President, Office of National Drug Control Policy, “Alternatives to Incarceration: A Smart Approach to Breaking the Cycle of Drug Use and Crime,” 2011.

[3] Qtd. in Ralph G. Wales, “Adult Probation and Parole in Colorado: Report of a Survey” (New York: National Probation Association, 1938), 4

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Stuart Readio, “Colorado Detention Use State Wide Trends 1985-89” (Denver: Colorado Department of Institutions, Division of Youth Services), 22. The report noted that law enforcement in Colorado was uniformly increasing their use of detention, driving admissions levels to beyond national norms. It also noted the inadequate number of detention alternatives, stating that “when such options are used, the decision to do so seems to take an excessive amount of time.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Roy Stevens and Kieran Nicholson, “Convicts Helped by Friends,” Denver Post, April 28, 1997.

[9] “’Prison Rehabilitation Programs’ Inmates Say Services Should Continue After They Are Released,” Pueblo Chieftain, December 11, 1998.

[10] Tracy Harmon, “Ex-convicts Endorse Second Chance Program,” Pueblo Chieftain, March 31, 2000.

[11] Steve Attencio, “’Prison Rehabilitation Programs’ Inmates Say Services Should Continue after They Are Released,” Pueblo Chieftain, December 11, 1998.

[12] “Ex-con: Key to Staying Out of Joint is Staying Busy,” Pueblo Chieftain, April 21, 1996.

[13] “Alternatives to Incarceration.”

[14] “DOC Head Blasts State’s Parole System,” Denver Post, March 5, 1986.

[15] Wales.

[16] Kirk Mitchel, “Colorado’s Rise in Parolees Fastest in U.S.,” Denver Post, August 18, 1998.

[17] “DOC Head Blasts State’s Parole System.”

[18] Mitchel.

[19] Marilyn Robinson, “Parole Staff Angered by Transfer Plan,” Denver Post, July 21, 1988.

[20] Christopher N. Osher, “Survey Finds Colorado Parole Officers Unhappy with Management, Pay,” The Denver Post, September 10, 2015.

[21] “Inmates: 98% Suffer from Drug, Alcohol Abuse,” Daily Record, April 1, 1987: “There are three of us doing this and we’re using the shotgun approach- we’re firing out there and hoping we hit something,” said Bill Leonard, who ran the AA program at CSP.

[22] “Ex-con: Key to Staying Out of Jail is Staying Busy.”

[23] “’Prison rehabilitation Programs’ Inmates.”

[24] Stevens and Nicholson.

[25] Nicholson, “Convicts Helped.”

[26] Ibid.

[27] “Alternatives to Incarceration.”

[28] “Inmates: 98% Suffer.”

[29] “Alternatives to Incarceration.”

[30] Ibid.