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Could we be doing more to help people on parole?

Kai Ryssdal, Alli Fam, and Bridget Bodnar Mar 2, 2020
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A truck is parked in front of a home in the historic Fauborg Marigny neighborhood in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mario Tama/Getty Image
Shelf Life

Could we be doing more to help people on parole?

Kai Ryssdal, Alli Fam, and Bridget Bodnar Mar 2, 2020
A truck is parked in front of a home in the historic Fauborg Marigny neighborhood in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mario Tama/Getty Image
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The following is an excerpt from Jason Hardy’s new book, “The Second Chance Club: Hardship and Hope After Prison.” It’s a recounting of the years Hardy spent as a parole officer in New Orleans at a time when Louisiana’s incarceration rates were the highest in the nation. Click the audio player above to hear his interview with Kai Ryssdal.

The summer heat in New Orleans drove most drug dealers inside by noon. By one o’clock, only the addicts remained on the street, resigned to waiting for the market to reopen at dusk. The Landry brothers usually spent most of the day inside, but the air at their house was out. The two brothers and the three big dogs were seated on the front steps when I showed up. I was the probation and parole officer — the “PO,” as we were known — to both brothers. I was new to the job, but probation and parole visits were old hat to the Landrys, and they let me know with a nod that they were in the middle of something and would be with me in a minute.

Javaron, the older one, had just turned thirty. He was short and stout like a college wrestler, with small, serious eyes. Ronald was as thin as a picket and covered in scars incurred during the violent epileptic fits he’d been having since he was a teenager. Ronald was twenty-five but could have passed for forty.

The brothers both had cigarettes lit and beer bottles in hand. Between sips and drags they exchanged pages of a police report given to Ronald by his defense attorney. According to the report, Ronald had been the passenger in a car that was pulled over for speeding. Ronald and the driver had been drinking, and the car smelled like weed, which gave the police cause to conduct a search. The weed was already smoked, so the cops didn’t find any. The cops weren’t all that interested in weed anyway. They were looking for guns. They found one under the passenger’s seat.

The gun was registered to the driver’s uncle, and the uncle had given the driver permission to take it. The driver had no permit. In Louisiana, that wasn’t a serious problem, but when paired with alcohol, the gun became a misdemeanor offense for the driver. Ronald had two prior drug convictions and one prior gun conviction and was forbid- den from being within arm’s reach of a firearm. For Ronald, riding in a car with a gun in it was a felony.

“You’re sitting right on top the motherfucker,” Javaron said. “Can’t believe they gave you bail.”

“The uncle came in and vouched for us,” Ronald said. “He’s got that big church on the West Bank.”

Javaron side-eyed his brother. “He’s got votes is what he’s got. Don’t think those judges don’t know it.”

Judicial allotments were pure luck. Political connections or not, there was only one judge in town that Javaron could see letting a probationer walk out of jail with a pending gun charge. “One-in-twelve shot,” Javaron said, “and you fucking hit.” He laughed and raised his beer bottle to his brother’s good fortune.

“I didn’t know he had a gun,” Ronald told me.

I told him I believed him. It was little consolation. A good report from a PO might convince a judge to go easy on a drug charge, but guns were another matter. Both Landrys knew it. Ronald was lucky to be free now, but he would likely lose his freedom when the case went to trial.

Javaron wagged his beer bottle at me. “You want one?”

Technically, probationers and parolees weren’t supposed to be drinking, but no sensible PO bothered enforcing this restriction. “Little early for me,” I said. “Let me do my thing and I’ll get out of your hair.” Javaron drained the beer bottle, flicked the cigarette into his over- grown yard, and led the way inside. It was a small three-bedroom house, at most twelve hundred square feet. The Landrys’ mother had the front bedroom. She was at work answering phones at a doctor’s office.

Neither of her sons was employed. Ronald’s seizures had gotten him sent home from the few jobs he’d managed to get. Javaron had spent his twenties in and out of jail, mostly on felony charges related to his work for the local crack dealer, and he considered himself unemployable. I got the impression Javaron was more of an enforcer than a dealer, but he’d had a lot of product on him during his last arrest and was sent to prison. Most drug charges, like the one Ronald pleaded guilty to the year before, were resolved with probation — in other words, without jail. Javaron served the first two years of his five-year sentence “upstate” in prison. As long as he didn’t get in trouble again, he’d spend the next three years under my supervision on parole.

In Louisiana, the probation rules and the parole rules were functionally identical. When conducting a home inspection, it wasn’t necessary for me to remember which of the two forms of community supervision the guy I was visiting was on. Most POs referred to probationers and parolees collectively as “offenders.”

The home inspection had two purposes, and even a rookie could see that they were an odd match. Purpose one was to look for contraband: drugs, guns, stolen property. If I found any, I was supposed to confiscate it, write a police report, and charge the offender with a crime. Purpose two was to make surface-level observations about the health, socioeconomic status, and pattern of life of the offender and the home’s other residents and use the data to help the offender turn his life around. In simple terms, purpose one was to put the offender back in jail. Purpose two was to keep him out.

Most of the floor space in Javaron’s room was occupied by rows of large black kennels. The three dogs I’d met outside on the steps were the product of a breeding tree Javaron had kept going for the better part of a decade, with Ronald stepping in to run things when Javaron was in jail. The bedrooms were small and clean, with twin beds and TVs on wicker nightstands. I spent no more than five seconds in each of the three bedrooms and another five in the kitchen and living room.

It was all the time I needed. Home inspections were “plain view” only. I couldn’t open closets or go into drawers unless I developed reasonable suspicion that something illegal was on the premises. Reason-able suspicion, sometimes referred to in law enforcement circles as an “educated hunch,” was easy enough for a PO to articulate. A long delay in opening the door during daylight hours (early mornings you got more leeway), an overly anxious or combative demeanor on the part of the offender, weed smoke — any of these could be cited in a police report as legal justification for a more thorough search.

Quick, courteous inspections were a small but important way of showing offenders that I didn’t want to put them in jail. I believed America should get out of the business of punishing people because they had a drug problem, or because they were broke, or because our city’s failing schools hadn’t prepared them for college or employment.

I’d found this job during a late-night internet dive into the topic of mass incarceration. The third or fourth mass-incarceration article mentioned probation and parole as part of the problem and, potentially, part of the solution. Most of the articles critical of probation and parole as institutions argued that offenders were set up to fail. POs asked too much of them and tried to solve every problem with jail. The answer seemed obvious enough. If reasonable people filled PO positions, out- comes would improve.

It didn’t occur to me — or, as far as I could tell, to most of the people weighing in on probation and parole matters on the internet—that POs used jail because jail was the only tool they had. It was all taxpayers were willing to spend money on. It’s not hard to understand why. Most people see jail as an investment in public safety. When we think about public safety, we don’t think about the costs. As soon as incarcerated people are released, we tend to reclassify them as receivers of social services. Investing in them stops feeling like investing in a less violent, less addicted America. It feels like a handout for people who probably don’t deserve it.

During my four years as a PO, I learned that “deserving” really has nothing to do with it. Probationers and parolees who go without housing, health care, drug treatment, and reliable income reoffend at alarming rates. Offenders paired with services tailored to their needs suffer fewer relapses and go back to jail far less often. They cost taxpayers less money. Some become taxpayers themselves.

There are about 4.5 million people on probation and parole in America, more than twice the jail population. For most of my time as a PO, my caseload contained more than two hundred offenders. It would be impossible to include all of their stories here. Reporting on only the hardest cases would give a false impression of the pluck and resiliency

I so often observed in the probation and parole population. Ultimately I settled on seven offenders whom I considered representative of the whole, in both the challenges they faced and the way they responded to them.

Most of the events described in this book occurred between 2013 and 2015. I’m sorry to say that not much has changed since then, either nationally or in New Orleans. Our failure to provide adequate probation and parole programming remains the single greatest missed opportunity in the entire criminal justice system, and possibly the entire American safety net.

Since Hurricane Katrina, my hometown of New Orleans has become emblematic of institutional decay in America. New Orleans places in the top five cities for murder rate almost every year. Until 2018, when Oklahoma edged us out, Louisiana was the world’s leading incarcerator. New Orleans continues to send more people to prison than any other city in the state. The New Orleans school system consistently ranks at or near the bottom in Louisiana, always in the running for the worst-educated state in the nation. Only Mississippi does worse.

In New Orleans the two Americas coexist side by side. Central City, the most violent neighborhood in town, with the highest density of offenders, adjoins the richest parts of the Garden District, where almost no one on probation or parole lived during my four years on the job. The oak-lined mansions of St. Charles Avenue stood a little more than ten blocks from the Landry residence.

About a third of the houses on the Landrys’ block contained offenders. Many of those houses also contained guns. When, about a year later, the one in the Landry house went off, I got the call that every PO in New Orleans fears.

The homicide detective’s questions started off small and clinical — questions about drug tests and patterns of life. He saved the big one for later. Was there more we could have done to intervene? And if so, why weren’t we doing it?

From THE SECOND CHANCE CLUB by Jason Hardy. Copyright © 2020 by Jason Hardy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.

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