Assessment of impact of changes to parole system

Criminology Research Council grant ; (18/84)

This study investigated the impact of changes in Parole legislation in South Australian in December 1983. These changes removed the Parole Board's power to deny the release of a person sentenced to imprisonment for a year or more at the end of the non-parole period and allowed parole release dates to be brought forward by up to a third through remissions. One of the objectives of the changes was to move toward a more clear-cut and determinate mode of sentencing. Research was conducted into:

  • the acceptance of the changes by judges, magistrates, correctional staff and offenders;
  • sentencing patterns before and after the changes; and
  • a comparison of recidivism rates of prisoners released after the changes with rates of those prisoners released before.

Interviews were conducted with judges and magistrates, correctional and parole officers, prison managers, prisoners and parolees. The research indicates that while there were some problems in the transition to the new parole system, almost all groups interviewed preferred it to the old. Judges and magistrates could not be so easily categorised as either supporting or rejecting the new system, but indicated a clear preference for the location of release powers with the courts rather than with the Parole Board. Parole officers (80 per cent), prisoners (77 per cent), parolees (71 per cent) and correctional officers (59 per cent) preferred the new system but were under no illusion that it would provide a permanent solution to prison problems.

The analysis of sentencing patterns indicated that head sentences increased in the first 18 months after the parole changes and increased yet again in the following 18 months. Non-parole periods increased markedly in the first 18 months after the changes and again increased, but more modestly, in the final time period considered. Regression of non-parole period against head sentence indicated that the non-parole period became a much greater fraction of head sentence in the two time periods after the changes. The parole legislation was the cause of a large decrease in the population of sentenced prisoners immediately after its introduction, but this was followed by a sustained period of growth as non-parole periods and sentences were adjusted upwards. Numbers of prisoners under parole supervision have increased rapidly.

The recidivism research used a method of recidivism analysis known as survival analysis and followed up released prisoners for periods varying between two and five years. The estimated five year recidivism rate for the whole sample was 65 per cent and the pattern of recidivism over time showed that released prisoners are at most risk of reconviction during the early months after release. Those who are not reconvicted within 30 months after release have excellent prospects of remaining conviction free after five years. The recidivism rate for the sample of prisoners released after the changes was marginally lower than the rate for the those released before. A further breakdown showed that those selected for parole release had the lowest recidivism rates ahead of those released mandatorily to parole after the changes. Parolees released unconditionally prior to the changes had the highest recidivism rates. The research also showed associations between recidivism and race, sex, age, offence category and number of previous convictions.