Parole was first used in Britain around the middle of the nineteenth century and in the USA during the latter part of the said century. In both instances parole was turned to as a means of solving the problem of over – crowding at prisons. However, even though over- crowding still plagues the prison system of these nations, in the USA there has been a reduction in the use of parole. Indeed, to date at least 16 states have abandoned the practice.
While here in the US opportunity for parole has been extended to accommodate felons, generally access to the program is directed to non-felons. Further, here in the USA the amount of a convicted felon sentence that must be served before being considered for parole differs. Some require that 50% be served others 80% and in others a convicted felon is not eligible. In Britain felons must have serve 50% of their sentence before becoming eligible for consideration.
Recently, the Kaieteur News of 10th April 2017 informed us that 10 prisoners were released on parole for Guyana’s 37th Republic Anniversary, and among those released were two felons. While I don’t mind Guyana adopting practices from these countries, in this instance, why have we gone with the lower qualification mark? What is it that we have learnt about felons in Guyana that make them deserving of the privilege of being released after serving the low requirement criteria of the British(50%) of their sentence?
The said report quotes the Director of Prisons as saying, in reference to the paroling of the ten offenders, that they are “well behaved and go beyond the call of duty of what is required.” But is this good enough reason? Good behaviour could be adopted to achieve a specific end, in this case, early release. It is no indication of one being reformed or contrite. Further, often in manslaughter cases the guilty persons display an inability to control their anger when experiencing a perceived wrong. What has led the prison officials and the parole board to be confident that the offenders offered parole have now mastered the skills of anger management?
This releasing of the two felons concerns me in two ways. First, I am not convinced that appropriate conditions were/are in place reference their release from prison. Here in the USA there exists a list of seven (7) factors that a Parole Board must consider before granting parole. Now, possibly, Guyana might have good reasons for not observing all of these. However, certainly citizens have a right to expect that the following ones are observed: (a) Demand that victims (this includes spouse, children, parents in cases in which the primary victim is killed) be informed of the impending release,(b) An assurance that the offender will find employment (in some states this might mean offenders providing proof of an offer by a would-be employer).
The relationship of unemployment and underemployment to crime has long been established. Thus, parolees’ ability to gain employment is likely to influence the level of recidivism (c) The community’s willingness to have the parolee return. This latter demand is one I can identify with, growing-up in Wortmanville I can recall the anxiety, the fear that residents experienced when news of the release of a felon who lived in the ward circulated. Certainly, Guyana should find no difficulties in satisfying these three requirements. Were they observed? Were they even thought of?
Further, while the parole system carries certain requirements that must be observed by parolees and directly associated with their supervision, today a number of states have added other requirements. For example: (1) Parolees must contribute a certain percentage of his/her earnings to the victim or dependents (parent, spouse, children) of the victim. (b) Parolees must contribute to the cost of his/her supervision. In Guyana, are similar arrangements in place regarding parolees? The fact that answers to these questions are not readily available to the Guyanese public, indicate a frightening lack of transparency among too many public agencies and boards in Guyana. This brings me to my second concern.
Mr. Editor, while the above questions focus attention on some perceived comings in our approach to paroling, I also posed them to demonstrate the threat to democracy that the absence of transparency give rise to. Transparency in its (government) activities keep citizens informed, this allow them to contribute and be involved in decision making by offering informed suggestions on a range of social issues.
Citizens’ participation in decision making is the hall mark of the majoritarian model of democracy. This demand of majoritarian democracy confers a duty on government to keep citizens informed of its plans and activities undertaken on their (the people) behalf. It is only by being informed that citizens’ meaningful participation in decision making can be possible. And this right to participate goes way beyond the right to vote. Citizens’ participation involves, among other activities – contacting senior government officials, peaceful demonstrations and letters to the Editor. It is by use of these socially acceptable means that citizens’ are encouraged to influence policy decisions.
Mr. Editor, when government agencies and boards do not provide information on their activities it makes it difficult for their actions to be influenced by the informed wishes of the people they are intended to serve. This neglect places an essential feature of democracy under threat. It also has the capacity of creating conditions for unnecessary controversy, resort to undesired modes of protesting and civil unrest. This is the lesson of the parking meter controversy.
In Guyana’s political history thus far and particularly during the reign of Presidents Jagdeo and Ramotar commitment to transparency by government has not been a priority. Important agencies and boards do not seem to feel it is their duty to regularly inform citizens on their plans and their activities. They feel no compulsion to; by use of the print media and television; report to citizens at least twice yearly on their progress. Outside of Guyana Water Incorporated one would be hard pressed to identify an agency that adequately keeps citizens informed.
Mr. Editor, over fifty years ago a small section of Wortmanville knew fear when a convicted person was released back into the community. This was because we knew so little of Parole Boards and other early- release programs. Thus, it was ignorance that created room for assumptions which gave rise to the fear. Today little has changed in this regard, and the recent action of the Parole Board is proof of this. Until state agencies and boards begin to demonstrate respect for citizens by ensuring they are informed, citizens are likely to continue to demonstrate little faith or interest in them and our democracy will be further undermined.
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