USA: why so few violent offenders are let out on parole

In recent years, national discussions of criminal-justice reform have largely revolved around non-violent drug-related convictions—as illustrated by the hundreds of federal inmates that Barack Obama granted clemency to at the end of his second term. In a sense, these offenders are low-hanging fruit: They are arguably the most politically palatable inmate demographic, and many lawmakers can champion their cause with limited risk.

The opposite is true for violent offenders, whose release from prison has been taboo since at least the 1988 presidential campaign. Willie Horton, the convicted murderer who committed a series of violent crimes while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison in 1986, was featured in an ad that year painting Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis as soft-on-crime. Dukakis, who as Massachusetts governor had endorsed the furlough program, lost the election, relegating violent offenders to the fringes of public debate for the next three decades.

Yet Marc Morjé Howard, the director of Georgetown University’s Prison and Justice Initiative, argues that meaningful reform hinges on this group. In his recently published book, Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism, Howard makes the case that reducing prison time for those convicted of violence would curb mass incarceration without increasing threats to public safety. He alleges that parole boards full of political appointees, who worry they’ll risk their jobs if they grant freedom to the wrong person, keep thousands of rehabilitated inmates stuck in prison.

I spoke with Howard about the nature of violent crime, the depoliticization of parole boards, and how America’s treatment of prisoners is different from that of European countries. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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