Alabama’s Board of Pardons and Paroles made headlines this year when it denied parole to someone who had died ten days prior to the parole hearing. The three-person parole board operated with just two members despite requiring a majority vote to grant parole. It is no wonder that Alabama is on track to have a parole grant rate — the percent of parole petitions approved — of just 7% for 2023.
Studies show racial disparities in parole grant rates are widening: for example, non-white people in New York were released at a rate almost 29% less than their white counterparts in 2022 (up from a difference of around 19% between 2016 and 2021). reports the Prison Policy Initiative )PPI)
PPI filed dozens of records requests and examined research to explore whether state parole boards are helping reduce mass incarceration or whether they are disregarding the hard-learned lessons of the pandemic, when they released even fewer people than before the crisis as people died behind prison walls.
In the 28 states providing 2022 parole approval data, only 7 had grant rates above 50% – Connecticut, Idaho, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and Wyoming. Wyoming had the highest grant rate, 78%. At the other end of justice’s sliding scale, Alabama (10%) and South Carolina (7%) have the lowest parole approval grant rates in the nation.
In the 26 states for which Prison Policy Initiative was able to track changes in parole approval rates from 2019-2022, only 6 — Connecticut (+29%), Georgia (+17%), Texas (+11%), Hawai’i (+8%), South Dakota (+6%), and Nevada (+1%) — have seen any increase since 2019.
In the remaining 20 states, parole grant rates have seen either no change or have seen a marked decline, with South Carolina (-80%) and Alabama (-67%) seeing the biggest drop offs in grant rates.
State parole boards heard fewer cases as well. With the exceptions of Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Arkansas, parole boards continued hearing significantly fewer cases last year than in 2019.
The result is that since 2019, the number of people released through discretionary parole has decreased across the board.
South Carolina’s Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services’ website highlights the money the state has saved by reducing the number of parole revocations over the past decade. It would be difficult to have more revocations, given that the state released 84% fewer people via discretionary parole in 2022 than in 2019.
Alaska has reduced the number of people released through discretionary parole by 79% since 2019; Alabama 70% and Maryland by 66%. In fact, with the exception of South Dakota every state for which data were provided released fewer people through discretionary parole last year than in 2019, with average overall decline of around 41% fewer people released per state. South Dakota’s increase is also extremely modest – the state released just 62 more people in 2022 than in 2019.
Overall, fewer people are receiving parole hearings, and fewer still are released through discretionary parole. In fact, discretionary parole accounted for only a small fraction of total releases from prison in 2021.
Expanding access to discretionary parole won’t by itself end mass incarceration; however, expanding its usage in conjunction with presumptive parole while eliminating undermining carveouts could be a powerful tool for decarceration. PPI says.