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Parole and technology: Prison breakthrough

The Economist: United States
April 16, 2014
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IN MONTY PYTHON’S “Life of Brian”, the Jerusalem crowd picks wrongdoers for Pontius Pilate to release according to whether their names begin with “r”, since they find it amusing that the Roman governor cannot pronounce that letter. (“Welease Woger!”). Two thousand years later, America aims to select prisoners for parole by more rational criteria, such as “Are they likely to re-offend?”It turns out, however, that granting parole wisely is hard. Parole boards may be biased, perhaps without realising it. In general, they tend to overestimate the likelihood that a prisoner will re-offend, says Lance Lowry of AFSCME Texas Correctional Employees, a warders’ union. Many fear that if they free a thug who then commits an atrocity, their reputation will be ruined.This makes them err on the side of severity. In Ohio, for example, a paroled murderer was arrested last year for allegedly murdering a 13 year old girl. (He later died in custody.) The parole board took a beating in the press. Being granted parole in Ohio is now only slightly more likely than winning the lotto, says Barry Wilford, a local lawyer. Among applicants given hearings, in some months less than 1% are released. (In neighbouring West Virginia the average is 48%.)Help may be at hand, in the form of “risk-assessment” software, which crunches data to estimate the likelihood a prisoner will re-offend. Such software tends...



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