July 07, 2005

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How to improve the parole system

Wisdom, it is said, is knowing what path to take next. Integrity is taking it. What, I wondered, will help us all on the integrity path to realizing the full potential of parole?
By Jane Miller-Ashton

I remember once watching a 1940s gangster movie in which an inmate about to be released from jail is shown formally signing his parole papers in the presence of both a police officer and a prison warden.

It impressed as a rather solemn occasion, which I'm sure struck a fitting chord with moviegoers of the day. The message in the scene was clear - if an offender is to get a second chance it should come with some commitments on his part. He should give his word that he will be law abiding and will honour the conditions of his parole. In fact parole in the French language means “my word”.

Parole in Canada is granted to inmates assessed as posing a low risk to re-offend - individuals who have accepted full responsibility for their offences, demonstrated an ability to address their identified risks and criminogenic needs, and who have viable plans for their return to the community.

We live in a country that gives inmates an opportunity to reintegrate. But what might that opportunity really mean - perhaps connecting with family members that may not feel able or willing to help; looking for a job when many employers require a clean record, updated skills or a proven track record; finding a neighbourhood that won't reject them when it becomes known that they are on parole; or maybe figuring out how to fit into a very changed world from the one they left many years ago.

Yes - re-entry can be a huge transition for parolees who have served long sentences, despite the fact that they have done the work to change their lives and are ready for release. Interestingly, our society marks other transitions of this magnitude in very different ways.

For example, the recent SFU graduation comes easily to mind. Graduates who walked across the stage to receive their diploma, symbolically marked their transition from student life to entry in the wider world of work or travel, or new educational adventures.

Graduates were not alone that day. The people who had a role in teaching and preparing them were there as proud witnesses - their professors and teaching assistants. Those who raised and care about them were also there - their family and friends. The alumni - those who had successfully made the transition before them, were also in attendance. A distinguished member of the community addressed the graduates with words of wisdom and inspiration. The highest ranking university officials were also on hand to convey the diplomas and to lend dignity and decorum to the event.

The graduates may have even made some implicit commitments that day: “I will use my knowledge to contribute to society,” or “I am grateful for the support I have received and want to give back,” or “I will look for work that makes a difference.” Undoubtedly, most felt supported at their graduation, although each, of course, would have their individual concerns and struggles. But at commencement, the future seems wide open, and we feel it is a truly a time to celebrate potential and promise. There is also a sense that the environment is quite hospitable to these graduates as they begin to make their way. They will face challenges, but they are part of communities that support them, which they share in and contribute to also.

Another event sponsored by SFU took place at about the same time as the graduation ceremonies - the annual David and Cecelia Ting forum on justice policy. This year's event explored the subject of parole and conditional release.

The forum brought together a variety of criminal justice players (police, parole board members, parole officers and lawyers) community justice agencies, activists, academics, students, media, aboriginal and faith groups, as well as victims and ex-offenders.

Participants heard diverse resource speakers interviewed about their views and visions of parole, and had a chance to pose questions. In the afternoon participants worked in small dialogue groups to recommend improvements to the parole system. These ideas will be passed on to a government committee that will be reviewing parole in Canada.

What struck me was that despite the diverse audience, there were common threads in the ideas that were created together. Major themes, among others, touched on the need to make the conditional release system less complex; the necessity for more citizen involvement in the process; the importance of circles of support for both victims and offenders; a vision for more restorative approaches to parole; and the key role of human relationships as the cornerstone of conditional release.

Participants expressed both faith in the parole system and wisdom about needed changes. Wisdom, it is said, is knowing what path to take next. Integrity is taking it. What, I wondered, will help us all on the integrity path to realizing the full potential of parole?

First, it seems that we in corrections must share our successes, struggles, studies and stories more publicly, more boldly. We also need to treat our partners with more respect by making the bureaucracy less burdensome and more accountable for all. We need to listen more closely to the concerns and ideas of volunteers and others who work with corrections, and they in turn need to build more bridges with corrections staff, to s trengthen our collaborative work toward a safer, more peaceful society. Non-governmental agencies need to address their philosophical gaps and to co-operate more to achieve the common justice goals.

The public, for their part, must be informed about corrections and parole by a media offering balanced reporting, a knowledgeable media providing more coverage of the many parole successes and promising initiatives; a media willing to be true participants in the correctional endeavour.

Business needs to partner more by opening doors to ex-offenders trying to take their place in pro social ways. And politicians need to redirect and re-profile more monies to facilitate the re-entry of offenders, to support victims and victim-serving agencies, and to promote healing approaches for all impacted by crime.

Together we need to engage the broader public with the news that parole and graduated release are key components of our correctional system, and that supervised reintegration helps to protect the community in a society that incarcerates people for long periods of time.

Collectively as citizens, we need to have the courage to be more hospitable. As we do that, we will strengthen our bonds of community, our confidence and our ability to prevent crime in the first place.

Like the SFU graduating students, those individuals leaving prison need to celebrate what they have learned, how they've changed, and what they are committed to giving back to the community on re-entry. They need hospitality and combined support from teachers, employers, correctional and parole officers, wardens, family, friends, neighbours, volunteers and ex- offenders.

I really like that movie image of the parolee signing his parole papers and giving his word. I'd also like to think that we who stand by as witnesses to such commitments, will not be strangers, and that we will give “our word“ too.

Jane Miller-Ashton is currently a visiting fellow at SFU, teaching in the school of criminology as part of the federal government's Interchange Canada program. She helped to organize the recent David and Cecelia Ting justice policy forum on parole. She is a correctional service of Canada (CSC) employee and the former director general of the CSC's restorative justice and dispute resolution branch.

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