Mental health risk factors and parole decisions: Does inmate mental health status affect who gets released

Kimberly A. Houser, E. Rely Vîlcică, Christine A. Saum, Matthew L. Hiller

Abstract

Parole decision—the decision to release an incarcerated individual from prison conditionally—is one of the most critical decisions across justice systems around the world. The decision carries with it significant consequences: for the freedom of the individual awaiting release (the parolee); for the safety of the community in which they will return; and for the correctional system overall, especially its organizational capacity. The current study attempts to add to the parole decision-making literature by specifically analyzing the role that mental health factors may play in explaining parole decisions. Research to date is inconclusive on whether or not mental illness is a risk factor for criminal behavior; despite this, individuals with mental health problems generally fare worse on risk assessment tools employed in justice decisions. The study relies on a 1000+ representative sample of parole-eligible individuals in Pennsylvania, United States. To increase reliability, the analyses test for several mental health factors based on information from different sources (i.e., self-reported mental health history; risk assessment tool employed by the Parole Board; and risk assessment tool employed by the Department of Corrections). To address validity concerns, the study controls for other potential correlates of parole decisions. Although the multivariate models explained a considerable amount of variance in parole decisions, the inclusion of mental health variables added relatively little to model fit. The results provide insights into an understudied area of justice decision making, suggesting that despite the stigmatization of mental illness among criminal justice populations, parole board members in Pennsylvania, United States, appear to follow official guidelines rather than to consider more subjective notions that poor mental health should negate parole release.

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