Saturday, February 25, 2017

GateHouse: It is time to rethink parole

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
February 24, 2017
It is time to rethink parole. Prisons are stuffed beyond capacity and efforts at reform have had minimal impact and have failed to provide any meaningful dividends.
The mantra of many parole boards is that parole is a privilege not a right. There are many legitimate reasons to deny that privilege -- ongoing and persistent failure to conform to prison rules, refusal or failure to complete rehabilitation programs or a pattern of past failures on parole.
There is little an inmate can do to immediately correct a majority of the reasons for denying parole. Other than the passage of time along with a persistent effort to complete programming and a genuine commitment to planning a meaningful reintegration into society, inmates cannot easily undo a parole board's decision to deny parole.
Parole is subjective. There are about 1.5 million men in women in America's state and federal prisons. Most of those men and women will be released someday. Would it be beneficial to society, and the inmate, if release came quicker and the inmate was better prepared to succeed?
Although there are criteria and policies to guide parole members on making release decisions, the process is different from any other decision made in the criminal justice system.
Decisions are often made after a brief interview with an inmate -- without the aid of counsel. The deliberation process is brief, or in some instances nonexistent, and in many states there is no opportunity for review. In Pennsylvania, an appellate court has held that, "(p)arole, being a matter of administrative discretion and determination, is nonjudicial and not subject to judicial review."
In Ohio, officials are trying to address the State Parole Board's abysmal parole rate -- 7 percent of inmates interviewed for parole in 2015 were released. One effort by the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections involves workshops to prepare inmates for interviews.
The workshops include sessions on grooming, etiquette, selling oneself, what to say, even advice about combing hair and brushing teeth.
The Ohio parole board touts its comprehensive 17-point release consideration criteria, but the points out, "nowhere on that list is 'posture, dress, language and grooming or public opinion,'" which seems to play a significant role with most parole boards.
Ohio's lesson on the board's "public safety" responsibility provides a glimpse into the staggering weight public safety plays in parole decisions. As part of the lesson inmates are told that the decision to release must be considered in the context of public safety, and "public perception," of violent crimes. The Ohio board is concerned with public perception not just reality.
According to Beth Schwartzapfel, inmates view a news report, where a county prosecutor takes the parole board to task after a murder by a parolee, "it's shameful," the prosecutor says. "They should take the responsibility for the decision and their poor judgement." Parole rates are often impacted by cases that go bad. Ohio goes so far as to tell inmates that it's a parole "factor."
The parole process can be streamlined. Parole boards should focus their time and resources on the inmates that really matter.
Parole should be split into three categories. First, those inmates who have complied with all requirements for parole -- programming, good behavior, institutional support and a low risk assessments. These inmates should be automatically paroled, without review by the parole board.
Category II would include those inmates on the bubble, maybe a high risk or past behavior history. Those inmates should be interviewed by the board, with the aid of counsel, and the ability for review of the decision.
Category III would be for those who are unlikely to be paroled -- refusing programming, behavior problems and no institution support. Those inmates are automatically refused without seeing the board. Eliminating those who earned release and those who haven't would leave more time for the board to focus on those inmates that need attention.
Parole interview preparation plays a role in getting inmates out of prison. However, preparation will have little impact without systemic change. Parole those who have earned it, keep those who haven't and closely scrutinize those in the middle.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book "The Executioner's Toll, 2010" was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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