the power and pol­i­tics of our pa­role boards

With few pro­fes­sional re­quire­ments and lit­tle ac­count­abil­ity, hearsay and in­stinct are fair game

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY BETH SCHWARTZAPFEL The Mar­shall Pro­ject

Reynaldo Ro­driguez was 19 with a young son, a good job and no crim­i­nal record when he shot and killed a man. As part of an on­go­ing fam­ily feud, some­one — Ro­driguez be­lieved it was a man named Robert Cuel­lar— had shot at Ro­driguez’s mother and brother. Then Cuel­lar slapped Ro­driguez’s sis­ter.

“I just blew a fuse,” Ro­driguez says now of killing Cuel­lar.

In 1977 he pleaded guilty to sec­ond-de­gree mur­der, and the judge gave him a choice: A sen­tence of 15 to 30 years would prob­a­bly mean pa­role in 12. A life sen­tence would make him pa­role el­i­gi­ble in 10 years.

Ro­driguez chose life. At his sen­tenc­ing, Sag­i­naw County (Mich.) Judge Gary McDon­ald made it clear that this was “not the manda­tory nat­u­ral life im­pris­on­ment sen­tence” and said that if Ro­driguez was a “model pris­oner,” McDon­ald would rec­om­mend re­lease in 10 years.

Thirty-seven years later, Ro­driguez is still be­hind bars.

Amer­ica’s pris­ons hold tens of thou­sands of peo­ple like Ro­driguez— peo­ple pri­mar­ily con­fined not by the ver­dicts of a judge or a jury but by the in­ac­tion of a pa­role board. Michigan is one of

In 44 states, the board is wholly ap­pointed by the gover­nor, and the well-paid po­si­tions can be­come gifts for po­lit­i­cal al­lies. The peo­ple deemed too dan­ger­ous to re­lease be­come the very peo­ple re­leased with no con­di­tions and no su­per­vi­sion. Many state pa­role boards claim ex­emp­tions from state sun­shine laws that would be un­think­able for other gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. “Some­one can be kept in prison in­def­i­nitely and could never have a clue that the vic­tim is say­ing some­thing that may be un­true.” Those who study the is­sue say pa­role boards re­lease far fewer peo­ple than they safely could.

26 states where pa­role boards are vested with al­most un­lim­ited power to de­cide who gets out of prison when, and why.

With more than 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple be­hind bars, the United States has the high­est in­car­cer­a­tion rate in the world, and the fi­nan­cial costs are stag­ger­ing. As politi­cians from both par­ties seek al­ter­na­tives to mass im­pris­on­ment, the pa­role process has emerged as a ma­jor ob­sta­cle.

A months-long Mar­shall Pro­ject in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­veals that, in many states, pa­role boards are so deeply cau­tious about re­leas­ing pris­on­ers who could come back to haunt them that they re­lease only a small frac­tion of those el­i­gi­ble — and al­most none who have com­mit­ted vi­o­lent of­fenses, even those who pose lit­tle dan­ger and whom a judge clearly in­tended to go free.

A re­cent re­vi­sion of the Model Pe­nal Code, an in­flu­en­tial doc­u­ment writ­ten by le­gal scholars, de­clared pa­role boards “failed in­sti­tu­tions.”

“No one has doc­u­mented an ex­am­ple in con­tem­po­rary prac­tice, or from any his­tor­i­cal era, of a pa­role-re­lease sys­tem that has per­formed rea­son­ably well in dis­charg­ing its goals,” a draft of the doc­u­ment says.

Ro­driguez’s pa­role file, ob­tained through a Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quest, in­cludes a scor­ing ma­trix that sug­gests how much time he should serve. Around the coun­try, al­most ev­ery de­ci­sion in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is now aided by such data-based tools. But many pa­role boards es­chew them, bas­ing de­ci­sions in­stead on po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions and gut in­stincts.

In Michigan, for ex­am­ple, Ro­driguez’s prior crim­i­nal history (zero) was mea­sured against the sever­ity of his crime (6 on a 23-point scale) to pro­duce a rec­om­mended sen­tence of 14 years. But Ro­driguez wasn’t even granted a hear­ing be­fore the pa­role board un­til 1994, 17 years af­ter he was sen­tenced.

By then, Ro­driguez had earned his GED and worked his way up to head me­chanic in the prison shop. He had a let­ter of sup­port from Judge McDon­ald and glow­ing re­ports from his work su­per­vi­sors. A prison psy­chol­o­gist noted: “prog­no­sis while on pa­role is good.”

But the board re­fused to re­lease him and has con­sid­ered his case only once in the years since.

“Na­ture of crime as de­scribed in public hear­ing causes fur­ther con­cern,” the board wrote.

Be­cause de­clin­ing to con­sider a case is not con­sid­ered a “de­ci­sion,” the board is not re­quired to give any rea­son.

Ro­driguez is now 59 years old. Pa­role boards are vested with al­most un­lim­ited dis­cre­tion to make de­ci­sions on al­most any ba­sis. Hearsay, ru­mor and in­stinct are all fair game. In New Mexico, the law di­rects the board to take into ac­count “the in­mate’s cul­ture, lan­guage, val­ues, mores, judg­ments, com­mu­nica­tive abil­ity and other unique qual­i­ties.”

The boards’ sen­si­tiv­ity to pol­i­tics stems in part from the heavy pres­ence of politi­cians in the ranks of board mem­bers. At least 18 states have one or more for­mer elected of­fi­cials on the board. In 44 states, the board is wholly ap­pointed by the gover­nor, and the well-paid po­si­tions can be­come gifts for for­mer aides and po­lit­i­cal al­lies.

While some state laws re­quire ba­sic qual­i­fi­ca­tions, these statutes are of­ten vaguely worded, with lan­guage that is easily sidestepped. Many states have no min­i­mum re­quire­ments at all.

And un­like politi­cians, who are bound by open records and dis­clo­sure laws and are ac­count­able to their con­stituents, pa­role boards of­ten op­er­ate be­hind closed doors. Their de­ci­sions are largely un­re­view­able by courts — or any­one else.

“Not only are they closed, they’re para­noid-closed,” said Janet Bar­ton, the for­mer oper­a­tions man­ager of Mis­souri’s pa­role board. “Closed to the ex­treme.”

Few oth­ers in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem wield so much power with so few pro­fes­sional re­quire­ments and so lit­tle ac­count­abil­ity.

“I re­ceived your let­ter . . . and frankly was sur­prised you were not re­leased at your last re­view,” Judge McDon­ald, now re­tired, wrote to Ro­driguez in 1999, al­most 22 years af­ter he went to prison. “I am sure you know that I have no power over the pa­role board and there is noth­ing I can do in that re­gard.”

In many states, the boards’ most ba­sic work­ings are shielded by law from public view. Boards are not ob­li­gated to give any but the most cur­sory rea­sons for their de­ci­sions, which in­clude not only whether to re­lease pris­on­ers but also how long they must wait to be con­sid­ered again or what they can do to in­crease their chances in the mean­time.

In 24 states, boards need not dis­close what ma­te­rial they re­lied upon to reach their de­ci­sions. Courts have con­sis­tently up­held this pre­rog­a­tive, rul­ing that in­mates have no due process right to pa­role.

“I have no idea as to what is ex­pected of me to gain mean­ing­ful con­sid­er­a­tion from the pa­role board again,” Ro­driguez wrote in an emo­tional 2003 let­ter to the board.

At the bot­tom, some­one had stamped: “No re­sponse nec­es­sary.” Pris­on­ers like Ro­driguez rep­re­sent a para­dox for pa­role boards: Older in­mates who have com­mit­ted the most se­ri­ous crimes, and served the long­est terms, are the least likely to com­mit new crimes upon re­lease.

One Stan­ford Univer­sity study of 860 mur­der­ers paroled in Cal­i­for­nia found only five re­turned to prison for new felonies, and none for mur­der.

This is es­pe­cially true for older pris­on­ers. Re­cidi­vism rates drop steadily with age. And older pris­on­ers are more ex­pen­sive: The av­er­age an­nual cost per pris­oner dou­bles at age 55 and con­tin­ues to climb there­after.

Still, these pris­on­ers are con­sis­tently the least likely to be paroled. Although they pose a low risk of fu­ture vi­o­lence, the po­lit­i­cal risk of re­leas­ing them is huge. Pa­role board mem­bers are rou­tinely pil­lo­ried in the news media and chas­tised by the public. Many have lost their jobs for re­leas­ing peo­ple whose crimes were vi­o­lent.

“There’s some of­fense con­duct you just can’t out­run,” said Wil­liam Wynne, a mem­ber of the Alabama pa­role board.

Take Keith Drone, who has been de­nied pa­role five times — in­clud­ing once when the Mis­souri board granted pa­role and then took it away.

Drone was 17 when he and his friends tried to rob a mo­tel. Although no one was killed or crit­i­cally in­jured— ex­cept Drone him­self, who was shot in the head — he re­ceived three life sen­tences, in part be­cause an off-duty po­lice of­fi­cer, act­ing as a se­cu­rity guard, was shot in the leg dur­ing the melee. Un­der Mis­souri law, “armed crim­i­nal ac­tion” en­hance­ments carry a life sen­tence, though Drone’s plea bar­gain al­lowed him to serve the sen­tences con­cur­rently.

Drone is now 44. “I’m not ex­actly an old man yet,” he said. “I re­ally don’t want to be one of those guys.”

Af­ter each pa­role hear­ing, Drone has re­ceived the stan­dard line from the board: “Re­lease at this time would de­pre­ci­ate the se­ri­ous­ness of the present of­fense based on A: cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the present of­fense.”

Of the 10 fac­tors pa­role board mem­bers weigh most heav­ily in their re­lease de­ci­sions, five are re­lated to the crime it­self, ac­cord­ing to a na­tion­wide sur­vey of pa­role boards in 2008. The top two are “crime sever­ity” and “crime type.”

Eight of the 10, in­clud­ing the of­fender’s crim­i­nal history and gen­der, were known to the judge at the time of sen­tenc­ing.

Those paroled be­fore the end of their sen­tence are sub­ject to su­per­vi­sion in the com­mu­nity. The pa­role board can dic­tate the terms of re­lease, in­clud­ing how of­ten they must meet with a pa­role of­fi­cer and whether they must seek treat­ment for drug or al­co­hol abuse.

But those con­tin­u­ally de­nied pa­role even­tu­ally serve their full sen­tence — they “max out,” and the state loses its le­gal abil­ity to su­per­vise them. The peo­ple deemed too dan­ger­ous to re­lease there­fore be­come the very peo­ple re­leased with no con­di­tions and no su­per­vi­sion.

“When a per­son is pa­role-el­i­gi­ble, if they meet the qual­i­fi­ca­tions, if they’ve done the pro­gram­ming, if they pose a man­age­able risk, then you want to pa­role them at the ear­li­est point pos­si­ble,” says Cather­ine McVey, the for­mer chair­man of Penn­syl­va­nia’s pa­role board.

Over the past two decades, how­ever, the num­ber of in­mates who max out has more than dou­bled, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study by the Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts. In 2012, one in five state in­mates was re­leased from prison with­out su­per­vi­sion. De­ter­min­ing whether an of­fender poses a man­age­able risk is a ma­jor pre­oc­cu­pa­tion in crim­i­nal jus­tice cir­cles. At many steps in the process — from sen­tenc­ing to pro­ba­tion — of­fend­ers’ his­to­ries are plumbed to pro­duce data-driven, re­search-tested assess­ments of the threat they pose to public safety.

In the past five years, at least 10 states have passed laws re­quir­ing pa­role boards to use risk as­sess­ment tools and other quan­ti­ta­tive guide­lines. Many other state boards also use them.

But the qual­ity of the tools varies widely, and even high-qual­ity tools are of­ten ig­nored.

A Mis­souri pa­role board staffer filled one out for Drone in 2001, af­ter he had been in prison for al­most 13 years. Be­cause Drone had no crim­i­nal history, his score was al­most per­fect: 9 out of a pos­si­ble 11. A copy was at­tached to his pa­role rejection no­tice.

Four­teen years af­ter that first risk as­sess­ment, Drone was fi­nally granted pa­role, but his re­lease was set for 2017. He has no idea why and no way to find out.

Some states re­quire board mem­bers who de­part from the guide­lines to ex­plain why. In New Hamp­shire, lack of a fi­nan­cial safety net or a safe place to live is “the most com­mon rea­son we would hold some­body back with a de­cent score,” said Donna Sytek, who chairs the New Hamp­shire board.

In other cases, it’s im­pos­si­ble to know whether a de­par­ture from the guide­lines was for a good rea­son.

“There’s not a way to go back and look at that file to find out why they de­vi­ated from the pa­role de­ci­sion guide­lines,” said one for­mer mem­ber of the Ge­or­gia pa­role board, who re­quested anonymity to dis­cuss the board’s in­ner work­ings. “They don’t have to an­swer to that. They don’t have to an­swer to any­body.”

Many state pa­role boards claim ex­emp­tions from state sun­shine laws that would be un­think­able for other gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.

In 19 states, some or all pa­role board hear­ings are closed to the public. In 24 states, board files and doc­u­ments are sealed. In 18 states, pa­role files are not avail­able to the in­mates them­selves.

Ge­or­gia, for ex­am­ple, clas­si­fies board records as “state se­crets,” im­mune even from sub­poena. This spring, Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed a mea­sure in­tended to in­crease trans­parency, but law­mak­ers jet­ti­soned a pro­vi­sion that would have re­quired the board to ex­plain its de­ci­sions. Some state boards are more trans­par­ent. Con­necti­cut broad­casts some of its pa­role hear­ings on public ac­cess tele­vi­sion. In New Hamp­shire, Sytek scrapped a long-stand­ing rule bar­ring cam­eras from board hear­ings.

“In or­der to have con­fi­dence in their gov­ern­ment, the public needs to know what their ap­pointed of­fi­cials are do­ing,” Sytek said. “They don’t trust what they can’t see.”

States that give in­mates ac­cess to their files al­most al­ways make an ex­cep­tion for vic­tim state­ments and other letters of protest.

“Some­one can be kept in prison in­def­i­nitely and could never have a clue that the vic­tim is say­ing some­thing that may be un­true,” said Bar­bara Levine, founder of a Michigan non­profit de­voted to re­duc­ing the prison pop­u­la­tion, and a mem­ber of the state’s new Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Pol­icy Com­mis­sion.

This may have hap­pened to Roo­sevelt Price, a Mis­souri pris­oner who last came up for pa­role in 2013. At his hear­ing, Price said he was stunned by a skep­ti­cal board mem­ber.

“I think you’ve been in­volved in other mur­ders that you haven’t been caught for,” she told him.

By then, Price had served 20 years of a life sen­tence for shoot­ing and killing his brother-in-law in a fight. His only other run-in with the law had also in­volved a long-stand­ing feud with his wife’s fam­ily. He had never been ac­cused of another killing.

“I don’t know where you’re get­ting that from,” Price said.

“There’s things in your file I know about that I think you don’t know,” the woman re­sponded.

Mis­souri of­fi­cials de­clined to pro­vide ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion.

“Sev­eral state statutes pro­hibit the re­lease of this in­for­ma­tion,” Mis­souri Pa­role Board chair­man El­lis McSwain said in a writ­ten state­ment. He cited laws dic­tat­ing that pa­role-re­lated doc­u­ments “shall not be dis­closed” and that any pa­role-re­lated meet­ing or vote “may be . . . closed.” When Judge McDon­ald sen­tenced Reynaldo Ro­driguez to life, he ex­pected Ro­driguez to get out in 10 years. This was, for much of mod­ern U.S. history, how crim­i­nal sen­tenc­ing worked.

Judges would hand down an in­de­ter­mi­nate sen­tence with a range of years, such as five-to-10 or 25-to-life. The lower num­ber was gen­er­ally meant to serve as the pun­ish­ment por­tion of the sen­tence. The bal­ance could be served on pa­role if the in­mate could prove he had been re­ha­bil­i­tated.

“The idea was, you should only stay in as long as you needed to,” says Peggy Burke of the Na­tional Pa­role Re­source Cen­ter. “The pa­role board was in a good po­si­tion to judge that.”

In 1981, mur­der­ers served about a third of their sen­tences— roughly 3½ years, on av­er­age — be­fore they were paroled or had their sen­tences com­muted. The tough-on-crime 1990s changed that.

Crim­i­nol­o­gists be­gan to tout the no­tion that re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion was im­pos­si­ble. There­fore, the think­ing went, the best op­tion was to

keep vi­o­lent crim­i­nals off the streets as long as pos­si­ble. “Abol­ish pa­role” and “life means life” joined the po­lit­i­cal lex­i­con.

Four­teen states and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment elim­i­nated or se­verely re­stricted pa­role. These states turned in­stead to “de­ter­mi­nate” sen­tenc­ing schemes, in which the sen­tences handed down in court dic­tate ex­actly when an in­mate will go home, and how long he or she will be su­per­vised af­ter­ward.

Boards that re­tained the abil­ity to re­lease peo­ple, mean­while, be­came in­creas­ingly re­luc­tant to do so. In the early 1990s, the New York state board voted to pa­role more than 60 per­cent of those el­i­gi­ble. That rate then went into a two-decade de­cline, dip­ping be­low 20 per­cent in 2010.

When Ro­driguez ap­peared be­fore the Michigan pa­role board in 1994, the re­lease of lif­ers in that state had slowed to a trickle.

In 1997, the Michigan board pub­lished a re­port trum­pet­ing its trans­for­ma­tion into “a Pa­role Board that is much less will­ing to re­lease crim­i­nals who com­plete their min­i­mum sen­tences — and much­less will­ing to re­lease crim­i­nals at all, forc­ing many to serve their max­i­mum sen­tences.”

Lately, the na­tional mood has swung away from the puni­tive ex­cesses of the 1990s. But those who study the is­sue say pa­role boards con­tinue to re­lease far fewer peo­ple than they safely could.

That con­clu­sion is largely anec­do­tal: There is no na­tional data on pa­role grant rates. Each board cal­cu­lates its rate dif­fer­ently, and some states don’t re­lease it at all. There is also lit­tle hard data on re­cidi­vism among parolees vs. those who max out.

“De­spite the best ef­forts of pa­role author­i­ties, there is lit­tle em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence to sup­port the propo­si­tion that we can ef­fec­tively dis­tin­guish those of­fend­ers who are truly re­ha­bil­i­tated from those who merely ‘ talk the talk,’ ” said a re­cent re­port by the New York state Sen­tenc­ing Com­mis­sion, which rec­om­mended that New York elim­i­nate dis­cre­tionary pa­role en­tirely. Courts un­der­stand pa­role to be an act of grace rather than a right. Legally, boards can — and do — make de­ci­sions for al­most any rea­son.

Board files may con­tain “ob­ser­va­tions of guards, coun­selors, and other cor­rec­tions per­son­nel. Even un­sub­stan­ti­ated ru­mors may ap­pear,” crim­i­nol­o­gist Neil P. Co­hen wrote in his au­thor­i­ta­tive ref­er­ence book “The Law of Pro­ba­tion and Pa­role.”

Many boards deny pa­role based on crimes that were never pros­e­cuted or facts that were never es­tab­lished be­fore a judge or jury.

“Their of­fense on pa­per may be prop­erty of­fense, but they may have had a se­ries of other of­fenses that just over­shot that,” said Wynne, the pa­role board mem­ber in Alabama. “I’ve seen bur­glary thirds that were pled down, that [started as] a bur­glary first and a rape. You’re go­ing to treat that dif­fer­ently from a guy that walks in and steals a lawn mower out of a shed.”

Time is one of the many fac­tors that pre­vent board mem­bers from mak­ing thought­ful de­ci­sions. The 2008 pa­role board sur­vey re­vealed that the av­er­age state board con­sid­ered 8,355 in­mates for re­lease each year. That’s about 35 de­ci­sions per work­day for a board that usu­ally has other re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

“I typ­i­cally voted 100 cases a day. That was just an av­er­age day,” said the for­mer Ge­or­gia pa­role board mem­ber, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity and who had urged a “sys­tem over­haul.” “You’re just talk­ing about two to three min­utes to make a de­ci­sion. The public would be as­tounded at the short pe­riod of time that the board has to make de­ci­sions on life and death cases.”

The pa­role process varies widely by state. Some boards re­view files and con­duct in­ter­views, ei­ther in per­son or by video; some only re­view files. Some meet to dis­cuss cases; oth­ers sim­ply pass files from one board mem­ber to the next un­til they ac­cu­mu­late enough votes to sup­port a de­ci­sion. That’s the sys­tem in Ge­or­gia.

“Most fam­i­lies have it in their mind that the board sits down and has a hear­ing as it re­lates to a case. And that’s not cor­rect,” the for­mer Ge­or­gia board mem­ber said.

Janet Bar­ton, who worked as oper­a­tions man­ager of the Mis­souri board for 30 years, said some mem­bers never ex­am­ined the files, bas­ing their de­ci­sions in­stead on how oth­ers voted.

As a file changed hands, “a board mem­ber may not even look at that case, other than to say, ‘I trust Richard. So I’m go­ing to agree with him,’ ” Bar­ton said. The next board mem­ber might say, “‘I don’t trust a thing that guy does. He’s a lib­eral de­ci­sion-maker. I’m not even go­ing to look at the case. I’m go­ing to just deny.’ ”

For a time it was Bar­ton’s job to fill out the form that com­mu­ni­cates the board’s de­ci­sion to the in­mates. She be­came in­creas­ingly dis­heart­ened, she said, by how dif­fi­cult it was for peo­ple with vi­o­lent con­vic­tions to get pa­role, even decades af­ter their crime.

Their forms would al­ways say the same thing: “Re­lease at this time would de­pre­ci­ate the se­ri­ous­ness of the present of­fense.”

But that was “not al­ways the truth. Some­times I’d make that crap up. The real rea­son,” Bar­ton said, was “we don’t be­lieve in pa­role for peo­ple like you.”

Mem­bers of the Mis­souri pa­role board de­clined re­peated re­quests for com­ment.

“Our statute is that pa­role and pro­ba­tion records are closed,” said Cor­rec­tions spokesman David Owen. In De­cem­ber 2010, the Mas­sachusetts pa­role board faced a sce­nario ev­ery board dreads: A man the board had voted unan­i­mously to re­lease went on to com­mit another ter­ri­ble crime. Dur­ing an armed rob­bery, Do­minic Cinelli killed a po­lice of­fi­cer.

Head­lines blared: “Mas­sachusetts Cop Was Killed by Ca­reer Crim­i­nal Out on Pa­role De­spite Three Life Sen­tences,” Fox News wrote. Law­mak­ers and po­lice called for decisive ac­tion.

Pri­vately, Gov. De­val Pa­trick (D) as­sured board mem­bers they had done noth­ing wrong. He urged them to co­op­er­ate with in­ves­ti­ga­tors from his of­fice, who ul­ti­mately blamed in­ad­e­quate su­per­vi­sion by Cinelli’s pa­role of­fi­cer, rather than the board’s de­ci­sion to re­lease him.

Still, when board mem­bers ar­rived at work days later, armed troop­ers es­corted them to a con­fer­ence room where they found Mo Cowan, the gover­nor’s chief of staff, dis­tribut­ing res­ig­na­tion letters, ac­cord­ing to a wrong­ful-ter­mi­na­tion law­suit filed by one of the board mem­bers.

Pa­trick still be­lieved they had done noth­ing wrong, Cowan told them, but he was ask­ing the en­tire board to re­sign nonethe­less.

“The public has lost con­fi­dence in pa­role, and I have lost con­fi­dence in pa­role,” Pa­trick said later.

In 44 states, pa­role boards are ap­pointed by gover­nors. Only three states re­cruit pub­licly for the job, which typ­i­cally comes with a hand­some salary and gov­ern­ment ben­e­fits. Pa­role boards na­tion­wide heed cases like Cinelli’s as a warn­ing.

In Mas­sachusetts, where the av­er­age board mem­ber’s salary is more than $100,000 a year, the new board got the mes­sage: The year be­fore Cinelli killed the po­lice of­fi­cer, the re­lease rate was 42 per­cent. The year af­ter the shoot­ing, it was 26 per­cent.

Mark Con­rad, the chair­man of the pa­role board that over­saw Cinelli’s re­lease, was a for­mer po­lice of­fi­cer with two de­grees in crim­i­nal jus­tice— and he was the gover­nor’s for­mer driver. In­many states, the most ob­vi­ous qual­i­fi­ca­tions of pa­role board mem­bers are their po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions to the gover­nor.

A Louisiana board mem­ber, for ex­am­ple, served on the Gover­nor’s Com­mis­sion for Mar­riage and Fam­ily and as a lob­by­ist for the Louisiana Fam­ily Fo­rum, which has close ties to Gov. Bobby Jin­dal (R). A New Jersey board mem­ber was a Se­nate staffer, then chief of staff to for­mer gover­nor Richard Codey (D) be­fore he ap­pointed her.

One of the Amer­i­can Cor­rec­tional As­so­ci­a­tion’s “es­sen­tial” stan­dards for pa­role boards is that at least two-thirds of mem­bers have at least three years of ex­pe­ri­ence in crim­i­nal jus­tice or a re­lated po­si­tion. But the ACA de­clined to clar­ify those guide a lines. “We’re not go­ing to weigh in,” said ACA spokesman Eric Schultz.

With­out an ob­jec­tive stan­dard, it’s hard to say how many state pa­role boards meet the ACA’s bench­mark.

The boards in Arkansas (which is ACA-ac­cred­ited), Delaware, South Carolina, Ten­nessee and Vir­ginia seem to fall short. Mem­bers in these states in­cluded farm­ers, ex­ec­u­tives at the chem­i­cal com­pany DuPont, an automotive bro­ker and per­sonal fit­ness trainer, a pas­tor, and an en­ter­tain­ment and event man­ager.

In at least seven other states, board mem­bers’ of­fi­cial bi­ogra­phies do not make clear whether they have crim­i­nal-jus­tice ex­pe­ri­ence. Four states — Wis­con­sin, Ok­la­homa, New Mexico and In­di­ana — re­fused to pro­vide board mem­bers’ bi­ogra­phies.

Pa­role boards have re­cently be­gun to emerge as an area ripe for re­form. In the past five years, at least 16 states have passed over­haul bills, in­clud­ing six that set out min­i­mum qual­i­fi­ca­tions for mem­bers, such as a bach­e­lor’s de­gree.

But many of those re­quire­ments are broad, al­low­ing for ex­pe­ri­ence in fields such as “ed­u­ca­tion” that don’t nec­es­sar­ily bear on the com­plex­i­ties of crim­i­nal be­hav­ior, risk as­sess­ment or the lo­cal prison sys­tem.

It’s not un­com­mon for board mem­bers to lose their jobs — or fear los­ing their jobs — for mak­ing de­ci­sions that are po­lit­i­cally un­pop­u­lar.

Given the close re­la­tion­ship be­tween pol­i­tics and pa­role boards, it’s not un­com­mon for board mem­bers to lose their jobs — or fear los­ing their jobs — for mak­ing de­ci­sions that are po­lit­i­cally un­pop­u­lar.

“You gen­er­ally don’t get reap­pointed if you take a con­tro­ver­sial stand on a media case. And most cases in­volv­ing law en­force­ment per­son­nel be­come media cases,” said Thomas Grant, a for­mer mem­ber of the New York pa­role board. The New. York tabloids have a close con­nec­tion with the po­lice of­fi­cers’ unions, Grant said, and “they can gen­er­ate a Page One story pretty quickly.”

Grant should know. In 2009, the Daily News ran a story head­lined: “Cop killers’ pal: Pa­role Board’s Thomas Grant keeps vot­ing to turn ’ em loose.” In 2010, the pa­per asked: “Has state pa­role com­mis­sioner Thomas Grant ever met a cop killer he didn’t want to put back on our streets?”

Grant was not reap­pointed af­ter his first term.

Vic­tims’ rights groups, too, now wield con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence in states around the coun­try.

“The heavy pres­sure for be­ing su­per con­ser­va­tive is from your vic­tims’ groups,” said McVey, the Penn­syl­va­nia board chair. “The ad­vo­cacy groups are stronger than ever.”

The vast ma­jor­ity of the na­tion’s pa­role boards are re­quired to hear vic­tim in­put be­fore mak­ing a de­ci­sion, ac­cord­ing to the 2008 sur­vey; 40 per­cent said vic­tim in­put is “very in­flu­en­tial.”

In Alabama, it’s al­most un­heard of for the board to grant pa­role over vic­tim op­po­si­tion. The board also rou­tinely re­ceives letters op­pos­ing pa­role from the gover­nor, the at­tor­ney gen­eral and other elected of­fi­cials.

“That’s go­ing to im­pact the dis­po­si­tion when they protest, al­most uni­ver­sally,” Alabama board Chair­man Robert Long­shore said. “You’ve got a very politi­cized vic­tim com­mu­nity in the state of Alabama.”

In Mary­land, Ok­la­homa and Cal­i­for­nia, the gover­nor has the power to re­verse a pa­role de­ci­sion, tak­ing a process al­ready im­plic­itly fraught with pol­i­tics and mak­ing it ex­plic­itly so.

Do­rian Mad­dox was caught in that emo­tional grinder. Af­ter ex­ten­sive psy­cho­log­i­cal workups, the Mary­land pa­role board voted to re­lease him in 2005, only to have the de­ci­sion re­versed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) in 2007.

When he pleaded guilty to first-de­gree rape and was sen­tenced to life in 1976, Mad­dox said, “the state’s at­tor­ney andmy at­tor­ney both agreed that I would ac­cept this plea and af­ter 20 years I would be paroled.”

Thirty-eight years later, he is still wait­ing.

“The public would be as­tounded at the short pe­riod of time that the board has to make de­ci­sions on life and death cases.” “The public has lost con­fi­dence in pa­role, and I have lost con­fi­dence in pa­role.”

JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

An in­mate in hand­cuffs pre­pares to walk out for a pa­role board hear­ing at the NewHamp­shire State Prison for­Men.

JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

Keith Drone, a 44-year-old in­mate in­Mis­souri, has been de­nied pa­role five times— in­clud­ing once when the state board granted pa­role and then took it away.

PHOTOS COUR­TESY OF THE RO­DRIGUEZ FAM­ILY

LEFT: Reynaldo Ro­driguez, left, with his son and grand­son in 2002. RIGHT: Ro­driguez, cen­ter, with his son and grand­son in 2015.

JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

Mem­bers of the NewHamp­shire pa­role board talk with an in­mate dur­ing a hear­ing at the NewHamp­shire State Prison for­Men in Concord, N.H.

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