Nebraska's Parole Lottery

© 2006 Last Updated: 2/14/2006

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You may not have heard about the Legislature's September 2003 Performance Audit Review of the Parole Board. The full Report is available for download at:

The Report is 21 pages long with supporting charts and documents. While the Report's factual findings are interesting, the conclusions drawn from these facts seem sympathetic to the Board. The Report is short on actual numbers and long on percentages, graphs and conclusions and quickly reminds you that in life there are lies, damn lies and statistics.

Release and Recidivism

The Report points out that an average of 704 inmates are paroled each year. However, since 1994-95 the number of inmates paroled is outnumbered by inmates released from prison on mandatory discharge (what we call "jamming out"). That gap has grown each year since then. While the total number of inmates has increased by 60% the numbers paroled have remained around 700 per year. Using the yardstick of "recidivism," which is defined as being reincarcerated for a new crime within three years of release, only slightly more inmates reoffended after jamming out than ones who were released from parole. Since 1996-97 parole recidivism was 20% while recidivism from those jamming out was 22%. From these facts the Report concludes that "it appears parole is not terribly successful at rehabilitating offenders." That conclusion questions the concept of parole not the performance of the Parole Board.

There is another way of looking at the Report's percentages. Let's add some real numbers to them. For the 4 year period from 1996-97 to 1999-2000 about 2900 inmates were paroled. If 20% of those reoffended that would be 2320 times (the other 80%) that the Board made the RIGHT decision to parole someone. In that same time period, however, about 4000 inmates jammed out, and only 22% or 880 reoffended. That means the Board of Parole made the WRONG decision (not paroling an inmate who would not reoffend) 3120 times. Therefore the Board's decisions were wrong more often than they were right. That conclusion is an audit of the Parole Board's performance you won't find in the Report.

That Adds Up To Real Money

Those errors are costly. The Report says the difference between parole and imprisonment is over $53 per day per inmate. That is more than $19,345 per year. For 3120 inmates that adds up to $60 million dollars over that four year period, or a $15 million per year savings had the Board made the right decisions. Perhaps a one year mandatory parole for all inmates or a mandatory one year commitment to community corrections before jamming out could accomplish a similar goal and savings for the State.

Can We Be Sure of These Numbers?

The Report also says that twice as many parolees complete parole as have their paroles revoked. That statement raises the question of whether revocation and recidivism are separated in the Report's numbers. If so then one third of the about 700 inmates paroled annually have their paroles revoked. Does that mean they do not complete parole successfully and, therefore, cannot be included in the 20% recidivism number? If so then you would reduce the 2900 parolees in 4 years by one third (to 1933) and then 20% of that number (387) reoffend? That would mean the Board was RIGHT only 1546 times and WRONG 3120 times. That is less than 34%. You could do better by tossing a coin. A coin toss would not help those offenders who would violate parole anyway, but it would still result in money saving for the State.

Let's be fair to the Board. The Report points out that a group of offenders have sentences so short that the Board never sees them before they jam out. In 2002-03, 183 inmates jammed out before they were seen by the Board. Subtracting that group of short-timers would reduce the 3120 WRONG decisions to the point where the numbers of RIGHT to WRONG decisions gives the Board a little less than a 40% ratio. Assuming that short-timers would never be paroled could reduce the annual savings by $3.5 million per year to $11.5 million. Diverting all short-timers into Community Corrections might create a savings which would help Community Corrections pay for itself. However, since that group is not broken out into how many reoffended and how many did not, we have no way of knowing whether the Board's inability to make a decision for them has any effect on the recidivism percentage. I suspect with the Report's criticism of the Board's record-keeping that the Board has no idea either.

Learning To Make Better Decisions

The Board's poor record-keeping prevents it from meeting its statutory duties. Under Neb.Rev.Stat. 83-192(2)(d), the Board is charged with doing research to improve the parole decision-making process. The Board's required risk-assessment is outdated and essentially useless, according to staff. Had the Board's records been computerized it would be a simple matter to do a factor analysis to determine what circumstances were most significant for predicting recidivism or the lack of it. That is the kind of research the Board is supposed to be doing but is not. The Board seems poorly qualified to accomplish that goal.

Another way for the Board to make better decisions is for the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) to provide more information about individual inmates, like they used to. Staff used to select inmates for positions of trust such as working in the mailroom, processing paperwork orders for the canteen, and delivering newspapers. Now those jobs are done solely by staff who are overwhelmed and can't seem to get those jobs done. There was a time when staff placed all inmates into work detail or work release programs where staff could monitor them. How the inmate responded to that opportunity was reported to the Board and that was used to determine who could or should not be paroled. That doesn't happen much anymore because DCS's classification formula for reaching that "community" status is now based upon the inmate's jam date, instead of their parole eligibility date. By the time most inmates get to "community" status they are close to jamming out anyway. Many choose to stay where they are and jam out rather than risk the meddling of a parole officer. The Report says that in one year 460 inmates jammed out after waiving the parole process. That is one half to one third of all the inmates who aren't being paroled. Thus, forcing DCS to make their "community" status available to inmates based upon their parole eligibility date could provide the Board with better information early enough to parole more inmates. Making Community Corrections a reality could make that happen.

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