It’s déjà vu all over again.
A recently released report regarding structural racism in the parole process ran into the same barrier that has hindered myriad other attempts at analyzing the criminal justice system: a lack of good data.
The commission, established by the state’s December 2020 police reform bill after the murder of George Floyd, examined barriers to prisoners obtaining parole and made recommendations for addressing them.
But when it came to one of the core charges of the commission, investigating the disparate treatment of persons of color in the parole process, the 13-member commission found little data to rely on.
Statistically, the report found that the numbers do not provide evidence that Black and Hispanic/Latino individuals are overrepresented in parole denials. But approval rates do not provide the full picture, since many people who are approved for parole are never actually released.
The commission wrote that it could not obtain data on the number of individuals who are approved for parole but end up completing their sentences in prison. There is no data available that shows how many weeks, months, or years individuals wait to be released after receiving a positive parole vote. Data to compare parole approval by race and ethnicity for the same offense or type of offense is also lacking, the report says.
Statistics show that White incarcerated individuals are slightly overrepresented in the population eligible for parole, Black incarcerated individuals are slightly under-represented, and Hispanic/Latino incarcerated individuals are eligible at rates similar to their proportion of the prison population. “Without more data on the types of sentences and crimes of the individuals, the Commission cannot draw any clear conclusions regarding racial disparities from parole eligibility data alone,” the report says.
This is not a new problem. In recent years, two landmark reports, one on reducing recidivism and another identifying racial disparities in criminal justice in Massachusetts, were stymied in what they could accomplish by a lack of usable data. A separate audit of the computer system used by the district attorneys’ offices called that system outdated, noting that it could not supply data for various reports.
The state’s 2018 criminal justice reform law attempted to address the lack of good data by requiring the state to create a new tracking system, in which every defendant will be assigned a number and their case tracked through the system. Information could then be shared between agencies, from the police to prosecutors to judges and jails. It would also more easily allow for data analysis by replacing an information system that is now fragmented and in many cases antiquated with one that can compile bulk data. But, as CommonWealth reported, the process of creating the new system is complicated and progress has been slow.
Despite a lack of data, the parole commission was able to reach some conclusions and make recommendations. Members want to eliminate some parole-related fees, since Black and Hispanic individuals statistically are more likely to be poor and unable to pay them. The committee recommends investing in transitional housing and sober housing for people who are released. It recommends eliminating certain standard conditions of parole, like a blanket prohibition on interacting with people who have a criminal history, since Black and Hispanic individuals are more likely to have a family member with a criminal record. It also suggests diversifying parole officers and the parole board to ensure cultural competency.
Another recommendation is for state agencies to collect more data on things like parole violations, parole revocations, and parole rates broken down by race and ethnicity. The commission estimates it will take a $100,000 investment to make software updates that allow for this data collection. It notes that the Justice Reinvestment Oversight Board – the group established by the 2018 law to create the new criminal justice tracking system – is already working on the issue. This report provides yet another set of recommendations to guide its work.