How the History of Parole Shows the Cruelty of the U.S. Legal System

After author Ben Austen released a book on Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing complex in 2018, a reader contacted him with information on the high-profile killings of two police officers he’d written about—murders he said marked the beginning of the complex’s “infamy.” The message sparked a years-long investigation.

“Somebody reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, you wrote about that crime in 1970, the 17-year-old who was convicted of that crime, he’s still in prison,’” the reader told Austen. “‘He’s innocent, and he’s coming up for parole.’”

The 17-year-old was Johnnie Veal. He’d been convicted of killing the two officers while they were walking through Cabrini-Green and sentenced to 100–199 years in prison.

“It hadn’t crossed my mind that a 17-year-old in 1970, which is before I was born, would still be sitting in a prison cell nearly 50 years later,” Austen told The Appeal. “I didn’t fathom it. And of course, that’s how our prison system operates. We’re supposed to not think about people. We’re supposed to not think about people. They’re disappeared.” 

Austen reached out to Veal and soon became immersed in his case and the larger world of parole—which Veal had been repeatedly rejected for since 1980—and chronicles this in his new book, Correction: Parole, Prison, and the Possibility for Change.

By 1927, parole was established in almost every U.S. state. But, between 1976 and 2000, during the so-called “tough-on-crime” era, 16 states and the federal prison system eliminated parole. In the states where parole still exists, Austen said the process can seem like a subjective, arbitrary storytelling contest, in which people must convince a parole board that they’ve changed after entering prison. A person’s freedom can often depend on the board’s mood or makeup. 

“Somebody has to talk about why they should be returned to society, that they’re a safe bet, that they’re no longer a threat to society, that they’re remorseful,” he told The Appeal. “And the story that’s always so far out in the lead is the one of the original crime, which is fundamentally unfair because that’s the one thing that never changes.” 

Below is The Appeal’s conversation with Austen about his new book. The interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

The Appeal: What is wrong with today’s prison and parole system? 

Ben Austen: We don’t actually have a correction system. People who get sent to prison, there aren’t structures in place that work on rehabilitation. People don’t know from day one what they need to do to get out. If we had a true correction system that focused on corrections, parole would be much more prevalent and feel much more effective. We would be celebrating when people get out because they graduated through this program. This happens in other countries. 

I visited prisons in northern Europe and everything was focused on reentry from day one. Correctional officers were highly trained in things like social work, psychology, and behavioral science. They were like mentors to the people in prison. They weren’t just like police. They felt a sense of pride in their work when people earned release. 

There was a guy on the trip who had been incarcerated in California who cried when he heard that. When he left [prison] the guard said to him, “See you in a month motherf**ker.” They were rooting for his failure and expecting it.

TA: How can a person’s innocence hurt their chance of parole?

BA: The currency of parole hearings is to plead your remorse and show how sorry you are for the terrible thing you did and how much you’ve changed. And so innocence is a much greater hurdle. [Parole boards are] willing to rehear the crime in terms of somebody’s guilt, but in terms of somebody’s innocence, that is not what they want to hear. They want to hear stories of transformation. 

[Take] Johnnie Veal. Fifty-one years he’s been saying this and imagine you’re a parole board. And somebody is saying they’re innocent—and he’s been coming up for parole since 1980—all the things, all the people and systems, that would have had to get it wrong. Police who arrested him, the prosecutors who tried the case, the judge who ruled, the jury, the appeal, appellate judges, and then 40 years of parole board members would have had to get it wrong. And of course, that is the case that happens all the time. And so, you have to call into question not just this individual in front of you, but also the system over decades. 

TA: What do you hope people gain from reading your book?

BA: If you spend time with Johnnie Veal and Michael Henderson in this book, to see their humanity, but then to think about all the amazing people who are wasting away. We’re spending money on geriatric prisons now. 

For a long time, I thought I was writing a different book about the country, because it felt like we were immersed in such dramatic change. From about 2009 until 2022, we only had seen prison numbers decrease. Even this bill that passed during the Trump administration, the First Step Act, and the kind of rhetoric around it at the time of even the most arch conservatives being like, “Yeah, we made mistakes in the 80s and 90s and we have to correct them.” 

[But] then by the end of this to be swept up in the backlash. We can’t afford to have these pendulum swings, a little bit of reform and then push back. We have to think dramatically.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ICYMI—From The Appeal

In Vermont, a simple yet radical approach to restorative justice helps people who’ve committed sexual crimes find stability after prison. Steven Yoder profiles a Circle of Support and Accountability and explores how local communities can launch their own programs.

Less than five months into 2024, deaths at the Clayton County Jail in the Atlanta suburbs have already surpassed last year’s total. As Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports, the local sheriff’s lack of transparency has only compounded the pain for grieving families.

In the News

Four years after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, many of the resulting reform efforts related to racism and the criminal legal system have stalled. Some states have moved in the opposite direction with “tough-on-crime” rhetoric and policies. [Yamiche Alcindor & Fiona Glisson / NBC News]

The city of Fontana, California, has paid $900,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit alleging police psychologically tortured a man into falsely confessing to the murder of his father, who was still alive. After a 17-hour interrogation, the victim was so distraught that he tried to hang himself when police left him alone in an interrogation room. [Tony Saavedra / Orange County Register]

The former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, spent years fundraising for a program to support the welfare of animals seized during police investigations. Now, no one seems to be able to account for what happened to more than $300,000 raised. [Jimmy Jenkins / Arizona Republic]

Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry last week signed legislation to reclassify the abortion drugs mifepristone and misoprostol as dangerous controlled substances. [Kevin McGill / Associated Press]

Tear gas and pepper spray used during a San Francisco sheriff’s “crowd control training session” drifted onto the campus of a nearby elementary school, sickening students and staff. [Amanda Quintana / KTVU]


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