Approximately 3.7 million people in the United States are on community supervision (probation or parole, also referred to as community corrections), which is nearly double the number of people who are incarcerated in prison or jail. Despite the large number of people on supervision, the many problems associated with parole and probation do not receive nearly as much attention as incarceration. It is important that policymakers and the public understand the connection between these systems of supervision and mass incarceration. Alternatives to incarceration are not inherently less punitive than incarceration. This line of reasoning can lead to an over-reliance on community corrections, rather than seeking solutions that do not replicate the harms of mass incarceration.
In this Weekly Perspective, we will be discussing the parole system in Missouri: what it is, the issues within that process, and potential policy solutions to those issues. Parole offers a way for people to return to the community without serving the entirety of their sentence in prison. However, there are many issues with Missouri’s parole process. Missouri’s parole system was given an F grade in a 50-state survey by the Prison Policy Initiative, and more than half of prison admissions in the state annually come from people on parole returning to prison.
Parole is a type of supervised release after a period of incarceration. It is different from probation, which is a period of community supervision given in place of incarceration. When someone is given a prison sentence as punishment for a crime, they will typically be eligible for parole after a certain percentage of the sentence has been completed. The percentage of the sentence that needs to be completed differs depending on the offense category. When that percentage has been met, the individual will have a parole hearing before the Parole Board. Missouri’s Parole Board consists of seven people appointed by the governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate. No more than four members of a single political party can be on the board. At the parole hearing, members of the board review the offense, the individual’s institutional conduct and adjustment, programs the individual has completed or needs to complete, and any other issues the Board finds relevant. The hearing can result in a release date, or another scheduled parole hearing in one to five years. When parole is granted, that person is released from prison, and expected to follow a specific set of rules while they are on supervision. These rules include regular check-ins with your assigned parole officer, maintaining employment, following all laws, travel restrictions, and more. You can learn more about the conditions of supervision in Missouri here.
The Prison Policy Initiative did a deep dive into all 50 states’ parole processes and graded them accordingly. Missouri was one of many states that received a failing grade. Some of the factors that contributed to this grade in the hearing process include that voting members of the board are not required to meet with the person seeking parole face to face, no method for challenging incorrect information during the hearing, mandated prosecutor input, limitations on the input allowed from the applicant and their family, teachers, etc., and no mandated yearly reviews. Upon release, people on parole face a new set of challenges, including a monthly supervision fee and restrictions on who they can associate with. There are clear changes that can be made to this process to ensure that hearings are fair and accessible and improve outcomes for people on parole. Wyoming leads the country in parole practices, earning a B- from PPI’s review. We should look to parole systems in other states, as well as evidence-based research, to improve the Missouri parole process.
Given the facts, it might not come as a surprise that Missouri is consistently one of the leading states in parole re-admissions, or people on parole returning to prison. Coming out of prison on parole can be a particularly challenging experience for people. Imagine returning home after many years of incarceration. On top of navigating potentially strained family relationships, new and frequently confusing technology, and an environment that may look very different than the home you left years ago, you have a long list of parole requirements to attend to, or you risk re-incarceration. Failure to meet these requirements can result in a technical violation, in which a new crime has not been committed, but a mandate of supervision has not been met. Technical violations are the most common way that people on parole are sent back to prison: not for a new crime, but for things such as missing an appointment, crossing a state line, missing a curfew, failing a single drug test, or losing a job because their employer found out about their record. In Missouri, more than half of those who return to prison do so because of a technical violation. Research from the Council for State Governments found that in 2017, 56% of Missouri prison admissions were due to technical violations for people on parole and probation, and 77% of prison admissions were due to all types of supervision violations.
Missouri’s parole system has come under hot water in recent years, particularly the parole revocation process. In Missouri, as in most states, parole revocations are handled by the parole board, which is exempt from state open meetings and public records laws. In 2017, a lawsuit filed against the state claimed that Missouri’s parole revocation process was unconstitutional, citing that Missouri has “created a procedural vortex from which people on parole cannot escape and are at continual risk of being rearrested and reentered into the prison system.” The suit alleged that the state pressures people to waive hearings, fails to provide them with lawyers they’re legally entitled to, and presents them with paperwork that is confusing and unclear. The result is that the parole board sends an excessive number of people to prison for petty violations, and holds them there for too long. In 2020, a federal court ordered the Missouri Department of Corrections to overhaul the state’s broken parole revocation process by ensuring that counsel is appointed, people on supervision are informed and empowered, and revocation hearings are prompt. One of the responses from the state has been to establish a parole revocation defense team within the Public Defenders’ office, one of the first of its kind in the country. While this is a step in the right direction, many more changes are needed to ensure that Missouri’s parole process is constitutional.
Every step of the parole process in Missouri is difficult for those on supervision: being granted parole while incarcerated, navigating the many requirements during an already stressful time of transition and reentry, and facing revocation for even minor technical violations. People on parole should be empowered to succeed and break the cycle of recidivism, but instead parole is frequently another obstacle to successful reentry, rather than a support system. Policy reforms are necessary for Missouri’s parole process to become a pathway for community reintegration rather than another tool of mass incarceration.
Empower Missouri’s Community Justice Coalition works to battle the harms of mass incarceration by advocated for evidence-based reforms across the five stages of the criminal legal system, not just re-entry, but also policing, pre-trial supervision, trial, and incarceration. If you’re interested in learning more, or participating in the coalition, you can learn more and sign up here.