Does a paroled offender’s sentence truly end when he or she is released from jail? Or does the judicial process have a hiccup that can prevent successful re-entry into society? Many would argue that yes, it does; and this hiccup is called back-end sentencing.
Basically speaking, back-end sentencing is when a parolee is sent back to prison for violating parole.
That’s how the system is supposed to work, right? Violate parole and face the consequences?
However, like every other aspect of our judicial system, the rules of parole have the best of intentions, but inevitably contribute to the ongoing problems of a system badly in need of an overhaul.
The problem lies in what constitutes a parole violation. There is a long list of requirements that come with parole, including reporting in person to parole officers, entering supervision programs, providing fluid samples, etc. Some of these conditions have a cost to the parolee, such as supervision fees, drug screening fees, and restitution. Many times, the parolee cannot afford the costs – so he or she is sent back to prison on a technical parole violation.
Once again, we also see racism and marginalization come into play. According to a Criminology report published in 2010, “Our analyses are informed by theories that have been used to explain ‘front‐end’ (court) sentences, which center on the focal concerns of social‐control agents, labeling, and racial threat. Our results indicate that status characteristics—race/ethnicity and gender—affect the likelihood that criminal parole violators are re-imprisoned.”
To be fair, it must be noted that the report indicated violent and sex offenders were also much more likely to be returned to prison – underscoring once again that the system is needed and, in many cases, works, albeit having glaring flaws that have lasting impacts on individual lives and communities.
So, what should be done? Obviously, the penal system cannot be done away with or revised in one fell swoop. Instead the solution is to reach back to the roots of the problem and start the revision process there. Address why people go to jail, why people of color and those living in poverty are disproportionately represented in the system, and why mass incarceration spiked in the first place. Then see how those reasons carry over into the parole process. If a person living in poverty is more likely to be locked up than his or her more affluent peer, then that same person is more likely to be punished for an administrative or technical violation than that same peer.
The issue of what constitutes a technical violation must also be addressed. Was the parolee given any educational courses in prison to help in finding gainful employment? Is the location of the fluid testing facility within reach (drive, bus, cab) of the parolee and does the parolee have the financial means to get there? How long is the parolee given to pay restitution if he or she entered prison without a job or education, and has he or she been released without prospects?
It’s not about putting anyone on easy street. It’s not about throwing money and jobs at people who were in jail. It’s about a much bigger picture that sees entire communities harmed when the system lets everyone down.
The Criminology report points out sagely, “mass incarceration is driven by both top‐down policies as well as bottom‐up organizational and community forces.”
Nate Link, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University-Camden, notes in the University’s news publication that the current penal system “feeds a massive system of ‘back-end sentencing’ in America,” and that “It’s easy to get tripped up and sent back to jail for…minor infractions. So just how much good are we doing these individuals and how safe are we making our communities by sending them away for these petty violations?”
The answer? Not much good at all. Back-end sentencing is helping to perpetuate a system that starts with the school-to-prison pipeline and simply doesn’t end. Offend, jail, repeat. When that is the cycle for minor, non-violent offenses that are tied more to a lack of money than anything else, it’s clear that what happens after prison is also in need of reform.
Christopher Zoukis, author of Federal Prison Handbook, Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts, is the Marketing Director of Brandon Sample PLC. He can be found online at https://sentencing.net, https://compassionaterelease.com, and https://clemency.com.