The secretive, fearful life of parole boards

If a judge gives you a choice between a 15- to 30-year sentence or life in prison, which would you choose?

Back in 1977, Reynaldo Rodriguez chose life. He was told he’d have the possibility to be paroled  from a Michigan prison after 10 years — slightly sooner than under the shorter sentence.

That seemed like the better deal.

But his first parole hearing didn’t happen until 17 years later. And he’s still incarcerated, like countless other inmates, despite documentation that he is of little risk to public safety.

In an investigation published in The Washington Post, The Marshall Project looked at how politics and fear keep parole boards nationwide from releasing eligible inmates to supervision outside prison.

As the story explains, older inmates are least likely to reoffend, even if their original crimes were truly heinous. In other words, they pose less risk to the community but continue to be locked away in overcrowded and expensive prisons.

According to the story:

One Stanford University study of 860 murderers paroled in California found only five returned to prison for new felonies, and none for murder.

Although they pose a low risk of future violence, the political risk of releasing them is huge. Parole board members are routinely pilloried in the news media and chastised by the public. Many have lost their jobs for releasing people whose crimes were violent.

In Pennsylvania, inmates convicted of first- or second-degree murder cannot be paroled. An early release depends on rare action from the governor or a compassionate release approved by a state judge.

Other violent criminals, however, are eligible, and parole can be beneficial because it allows the state to monitor an inmate’s transition back into the community.

[I]f they pose a manageable risk, then you want to parole them at the earliest point possible,” Catherine McVey, the former chairman of Pennsylvania’s parole board, told The Marshall Project.

But in 2012, nearly 21 percent of Pennsylvania inmates served their maximum sentences before release, according to a report by Pew Charitable Trusts.

As the Pew report explains, a “max-out” means that the state has lost its ability to supervise inmates in the community.

Since 2011, however, Pennsylvania’s parole roster has increased by 5,000 offenders, the state reports.

The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, which holds closed hearings, makes clear that inmates have no inherent right to parole. A minimum sentence is merely the date when parole can be considered. It does not mean parole is forthcoming or even likely.

“The Board’s main consideration is whether or not you have reduced your risk of committing a new crime and can safely be managed in the community,” the board’s handbook says.

McVey, who was made chairman by former Gov. Ed Rendell, said that pressure for “being super conservative” comes from victims’ groups.

The fear is that released inmates will commit awful crimes after being deemed fit by the board. In many cases, the story notes, the fear trumps clean behavior records in prison and a positive evaluation of an inmate’s readiness to return to society.

In 2010, Massachusetts’ board members faced a nightmare scenario — and were asked to resign — after an inmate they paroled killed a police officer in an armed robbery.

For board members, every release decision is a gamble.

But with the exception of the most serious offenders, even violent criminals are expected to return home eventually. The question is when and if they are under supervision.

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at jbenzing@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.