Covid has Changed Everything, and Nothing, About Parole

For the past nine or ten months, every client I’ve helped with parole has asked some version of this question. What does Covid mean for my chances at parole? Over time, the answer has become clearer, but certainly not simple. Because Covid has changed everything, and nothing.

Covid alone doesn’t get anyone out of jail. At the core of any parole proceeding is a basic question. Can this person be managed safely in the community? If the answer is yes, then the Parole Board is supposed to help that person get rehabilitated, reintegrate, etc. You don’t need a special reason on top of that to get parole, so it isn’t necessary to cite Covid or any other motivation to get out. If the answer is no, then the Parole Board isn’t going to release someone they believe is dangerous or unmanageable. Doesn’t matter if they might get Covid in jail – doesn’t matter if they have gotten Covid in jail. Probably wouldn’t matter if the jail was on fire.

At the same time, so much has changed in light of Covid it’s almost impossible to have a parole hearing without discussing it. The Parole Board also considers the plan in any parole application. They are asking this further question. If we release this person, will they do positive things that help them get back on their feet, get the help they need, etc? And is their plan better than whatever help they might receive in custody? Here, Covid is very relevant. Because programs are not running in custody. Inmates aren’t getting help, treatment, etc. And conditions in jail are, undeniably, very bad. So almost any plan of release is better than keeping someone in jail right now, if they can be managed safely.

The best advice I can give clients right now is to ignore Covid entirely when putting together a parole plan and application. Of course in a hearing we’re going to talk about it. It’s the elephant in the room. But it shouldn’t be the central focus of a parole application. It isn’t the reason any Parole Board will grant parole. It may be the reason why a client hasn’t been able to complete programs in jail, or doesn’t have employment to return to, or why just leaving jail, staying at home, and staying out of trouble may be a good plan with nothing more. But we’re still going to focus on risk and rehabilitation, just like we always would. Because that’s what the Parole Board will base its decision on.

I’ve turned away a few clients during this time because I couldn’t approach parole the way they wanted to – by arguing that it was wrong to keep them in jail at all with Covid going on. Hopefully those clients found help elsewhere. It isn’t that I disagree conditions in jail are terrible. I’ve represented clients in at least three separate, major outbreaks now. I’m just more interested in doing what’s going to work best to get my clients out of jail, rather than arguing about things the Parole Board can’t and won’t base its decisions on.

Anyway. It’s just a completely different version of exactly the same thing.

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