How parole boards could be reformed

I wrote a blog last week proposing legislative action to reduce prison sentences for current inmates as well as those convicted in the future. A number of readers objected, and some said parole boards provide sufficient remedy for individual cases.

But parole boards have their own problems. The Federal Bureau of Prisons and the state of Kansas have both abolished parole boards because they are arbitrary and expensive. The feds simply don't offer parole while Kansas is relying on prison staff to make parole decisions.

In Missouri, the parole board operates under one of the most secretive processes in the nation, meant to protect board members from undue influence as well as criticism by hindsight. One unintended consequence is that there is no measure of accountability. Board members are political appointees, half Democratic and half Republican. They don't have to read material or even attend hearings. There's no way to boot them out of their job.

But assume that the Board of Probation and Parole is doing its level best, reading assessments, listening to testimony, discussing earnestly. They deny parole in a form letter that says there is no appeal but gives no reason for the decision and no direction about how to make a more successful parole application two years later.

Parole boards investigate inmate history, but a parole hearing isn't a "teachable moment." There's no opportunity there for an inmate to learn what to do better. So the hearings can crush hope and teach cynicism.

Also, there's no opportunity to correct errors. Sometimes parole officers I've talked to seem confused about whether there was one felony or two, whether the inmate has expressed remorse, even whether the victim or the surviving family oppose parole. Secrecy makes it easier to simply say no, to deny parole.

Another issue is the role of the parole board. Is it to determine if the inmate who is eligible for parole is no longer a danger to public safety? Is it to determine if he or she has been punished enough? Is it to carry out the wishes of the victim or the victim's family? My answer is that the parole board's job is to assess the inmate's risk to public safety, not to continue punishment or satisfy someone's desire for revenge. Others disagree.

I'd recommend a 60-point system to gain parole. For example:

  • Inmate work: up to 10 points

  • Inmate good behavior and lack of violations: up to 10 points

  • Inmate participation in programs: up to 10 points

  • Inmate home plan: up to 10 points

  • Staff recommendations: up to 10 points

  • Heinousness of the crime, expression of remorse, victim testimony: up to 10 points
  • Anyone with more than 50 points would receive parole. Anyone with fewer than 30 points would not receive parole. Parole board judgments would be made for those receiving between 30 and 50 points.

    Parole board deliberations and votes would not be published, nor would inmate scores, but the inmates would receive their scores.

    The Board of Probation and Parole must be protected from public pressure in deliberations; its exclusion from Sunshine disclosure provides this protection. However, they must also have a measure of accountability to the public they serve. Criteria such as an objective point system would make it clear to the public and to the offender what the offender must accomplish in order to be granted parole.

    My criteria don't solve all the problems or guarantee that mistakes won't be made, but they would be a step forward.

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