May 15, 2019
When former Ohio lawmaker Shirley Smith resigned from the Ohio Parole Board, she told the Dayton Daily News that the agency was “dysfunctional, secretive and toxic.”
There are approximately 49,500 inmates in Ohio’s state prison system. The parole board has discretion over only about 9,000 inmates. In 1996, the state enacted truth-in-sentencing requiring sentences of a specific term. As a result, the board has discretion over about 3,900 inmates sentenced under the old law and another 5,000 inmates serving life sentences for serious crimes such as murder.
The Ohio Parole Board may only grant parole “if in its judgment there is reasonable ground to believe that ... paroling the prisoner would further the interests of justice and be consistent with the welfare and security of society.”
According to the Daily News, between 2011 and October 2018, the parole board granted release for 1,076 inmates out of the 10,575 interviews it conducted – a parole rate of 10.2 percent.
Board members are appointed by the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Board members interview parole-eligible inmates via video conference. Interviews and deliberations are closed, but decisions are public record.
The Ohio Parole Board operates largely behind closed doors. Records are kept secret, full board meetings are open to the public but debate and votes are conducted behind closed doors.
Smith’s departing critique of the board has opened the system, and process, to scrutiny. Criticism has begun to grow from crime victims, inmates and attorneys.
The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has a new director – Annette Chambers-Smith. The new director is talking about reform. She believes change is needed, including increased transparency.
Gov. Mike DeWine has also jumped into the fray. DeWine would like to add new members to the parole board from different backgrounds, improve training and establish new guidelines weighing inmate misconduct.
Although the governor’s suggestion to create behavior guidelines is a step in the right direction, it too is inadequate. Ohio needs to establish guidelines to aid board members in making decisions. For instance, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, on which I served for six years, uses a regularly normed parole guideline. The instrument is generated for every inmate eligible for parole and being interviewed by a panel of the parole board.
The Pennsylvania parole guidelines consider such things as behavior in prison, program completion, prior supervision history, prior criminal history, future risk and the nature of the offense resulting in the inmate’s incarceration.
Each inmate is provided a numerical score which indicates whether the inmate is “likely” or “unlikely” to be paroled.
The Pennsylvania Board also uses various assessments including risk, sex offending, mental health and drug and alcohol. The guidelines provide uniformity to the board’s decision making. The parole rate for the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole is about 58 percent.
That is not to suggest that Ohio’s parole rate should be comparable. Pennsylvania’s board sees, or votes on, the parole of every violent and non-violent offender in state prison who is eligible for parole.
Ohio’s board is only seeing inmates who were incarcerated before truth-in-sentencing was established. The inmates who are left received hefty sentences and many presumably committed serious, violent offenses. The other segment of the prison population Ohio deals with are lifers. The lifers are usually the worst of the worst.
DeWine said his administration is appointing three new members to the board – a public defender, a prosecutor and a state lawmaker.
“The reforms of the Parole Board are a work in progress. There is going to be more besides what we are announcing today,” he told the Daily News, adding that he is working with state lawmakers on additional changes.
Creating parole guidelines would provide consistency and transparency to the parole process in Ohio and would go a long way toward gaining the confidence of the governor, lawmakers and most importantly, the public.
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 at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino)
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