Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Parole Board That Doesn't

"Prisoners under the 'old law' parole system are always mindful that bad behavior will kill any chance they have of getting parole. And only parole provides an incentive for prisoners to modify their behavior once they are released from prison, because only a parolee is still under the supervision of the DOC and subject to having their parole revoked. There is a way to bring hope to the hopeless and assuage the public safety concerns of society at the same time."
- Steven W. Goodman 1028377, Buckingham Correctional Center

Parole was officially abolished in Virginia in 1995 during Governor George Allen’s administration, but more than 3,500 older inmates are still parole eligible, according to William W. Muse, current chairman of the Virginia Parole Board.

The official mission of the five-member Board, appointed by Virginia governors for four-year terms, is “to protect public safety and contribute to a fair and effective justice system by ensuring that persons who remain a threat to society remain incarcerated and those who have been sufficiently punished and no longer present a risk are released to become productive citizens.

In recent years, however, the Board has rarely granted such releases. In 2012, for example, out of 3,156 cases up for review, only 116 prisoners were paroled, according to Virginia CURE, an advocacy group for criminal justice reform. That’s under 4%, as compared to over 40% during some previous administrations.

Capitol News Service cites the current parole board chair as admitting they seldom actually meet with inmates, but professional parole examiners do their interviews for them either in person or by video conference. "We look at the examiner’s as well as Department of Corrections’ data on the original offense and how he has acted since he was incarcerated," he says, "After that, the decision is basically done by the computer.”

Apparently their computer routinely denies parole due to 'the serious nature of the crime'.

How does that make sense, since that “the nature of the crime” is a constant? Shouldn’t the Board be meeting with the individual under consideration, along with consulting prison personnel familiar with him or her, in order to determine whether that individual (not the crime) has changed and “no longer presents a risk”?

A growing number of those incarcerated are in their seventies and eighties and in declining health. Not only do they represent a near zero risk to society, they are in fact eligible for special consideration under the Geriatric Release provisions enacted in 1994. But even those cases are almost routinely denied, in spite of the growing costs to tax payers for their end of life care.

Meanwhile, Annette E. Blankenship, secretary for AdvoCare, Inc., notes that while the parole boards case load is a third of what it was in 1995, and that many inmates now come up for review only every three years rather than annually as before, the annual salary (not counting expenses) of the three full time members has grown to well over $100,000 annually and for the two part time members to over $50,000. This in spite of the fact that members do much of their work online from home.

With tightening state budgets, how can this be justified? How might we change this dysfunctional system?

According to the 2013 Mobile Justice Tour in Virginia, sponsored by the Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged (RIHD), Bridging the Gap in Virginia, Good Seed, Good Ground, and the Virginia Organizing and Advancement Project, legislation will be introduced in the 2014 Virginia General Assembly to provide for earned sentence credit for good behavior and the successful completion of approved prison-based educational programs. This alternative to the former parole system has already proven successful in many states, according to MJT organizers. Specific Virginia legislation would provide for 1) prison-based literacy, educational, therapeutic, and vocational programs, 2) volunteer tax credits for professional and/or licensed persons providing educational and other services to incarcerated persons, and 3) temporary public assistance for up to nine months to newly released individuals.

A key part of the mission of the Parole Board, after all, is to make sure "those who have been sufficiently punished and no longer present a risk are released to become productive citizens.” 

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Sic Semper Captivis? (So Be It Ever to Prisoners?)

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