Parole has benefits, but the process needs fixing

by Mary Ann McGivern

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The Department of Justice abandoned parole boards 10 or 20 years ago. Some states like Kansas have followed suit because parole operations are difficult. In particular, deciding who to grant parole to and when is problematic.

But parole has two big benefits. First, it can correct sentencing errors in judgment such as giving life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses or to very young offenders. Second, it offers supervision and, ideally, support to released prisoners. Most parole officers serve their clients well, helping them find work, mend family relationships and manage addictions.

In most states, the governor appoints the parole board members and the appointment process is fraught with politics. In Missouri, for example, five of the seven seats are held by former state legislators, one by a former warden, and one by an experienced social and civil rights expert who is the only woman on the panel.  There needs to be a mix of members with credentials in psychology, pastoral experience and community development.

The process of granting parole is secret. In Missouri, deliberations are exempt from the state’s Sunshine Law. This protects the parole board, but leaves inmates who are denied parole confused about how to do better. Parole board members have told me that when a victim or victim’s family appear at a hearing, they will always deny parole. No inmate can remedy the wrong they committed; they can only reform their lives.

Here’s point system the Empower Missouri Criminal Justice Task Force developed and offered to the Missouri Division of Probation and Parole.

  • 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
  • The nature of the crime, expression of remorse, victim testimony: 10 points

Anyone with more than 50 points would receive parole. Anyone with less 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 Parole board deliberations and votes would not be published.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. However, inmates would receive their scores.

A point system isn’t a perfect remedy, but it is a step toward fairness and transparency and it moves a difficult process forward.

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