Monday, February 21, 2011

A Transparent Parole and Prison System

The last case I tried involved the murder of a deaf man who was waiting at a bus stop.

He wasn't the target of the murderer, who had gotten into an argument with someone and started shooting. An innocent bystander, the deaf man had finished his maintenance shift at the Social Security Administration late in the evening but never made it home.

No one from his family showed up at the trial or the sentencing. No one spoke for him but me. And when the judge sentenced the murderer to life in prison, I remember feeling some comfort that the governor would have to sign off on any parole. It wouldn't just be up to some parole commission that would be given no reminder of the value of this man's life. Another pair of eyes would look at the case.

Now there's legislation pending to remove the governor's authority to approve parole for those sentenced to "life" for their crimes. Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks wrote last Sunday for the second time in support of the measure. A
similar article appeared earlier this month in The Washington Post.

Rodricks advanced the argument that governors who refuse to approve parole for lifers are necessarily doing it for "political" (i.e. bad) reasons, and that it's unfair to put parole decisions in the hands of politicians. This supposedly undermines judges who, in rendering a sentence of "life" in prison as opposed to "life without parole" intend that the offender have a chance at parole.

Except that all any judge has to do to keep a governor's hands off parole is to sentence a criminal to a term of years, rather than "life." Everybody in the system knows it. Judges who want to get around the governor, can.

Rodricks really objects to the fact that governors can set a unilateral policy against parole for lifers, pointing to former governor Parris Glendening and possibly current governor Martin O'Malley. In this I agree. Each case should always be taken on its own merits. But I am not ready to jump to the solution of eliminating the governor's discretion. We allow governors to unilaterally commute sentences and issue pardons. I'm not convinced that allowing discretion in the other direction is so horrible when it comes to those who have earned life sentences.

But I could be persuaded to support changing the law if we reverse this sentence of Rodricks: "Take the governor out of the process, let the parole commission do its job, and build additional transparency into the system." He has it backwards. First we build in transparency, then we see how the parole commission does its job, and lastly we take the governor out of the process.

My experience with the parole and prison system in Maryland gives me zero confidence in its handling of dangerous offenders. The Division of Correction (DOC), for example, routinely fails to take good-time credits away for bad behavior. Take an incident that made the news last summer, when a Crips gang member and convicted felon named Brian Joseph Hill fired a gun at a Carroll County deputy sheriff and is now pending attempted murder charges.

Hill had previously been convicted of firing numerous shots at a group of people he thought had insulted his cousin, with one bullet penetrating the exterior wall of a house. It flew over a bed where a couple was sleeping and shattered the glass of a cabinet in the room. For this, together with a violation of probation (where Hill originally had assaulted an undercover police officer) and a third assault case dropped in the plea bargain, Hill got 5 years with another 10 ears suspended.

I found out that information going through public court files. But the public is kept in the dark about what happens in prison. Hill made, in the words of a DOC letter to prosecutors that I obtained, "a very poor adjustment" in prison. He battered a rival gang member in prison with a padlock contained in a sock. He assaulted another inmate who was helpless in handcuffs, and got into a fistfight with still another inmate, at which time a metal shank was found at the scene.

Yet according to a prison official speaking anonymously, Hill lost no good time credits for any infraction. When I tried to verify this with DOC they refused to answer my question. But Hill was released over 16 months early from his sentence thanks to good time credits. (He didn't shoot at the deputy sheriff within that 16 months, but that isn't the point.) It's astonishing.

This is typical, routine at DOC. They refuse to take away good time credits so they can push inmates out of the door as soon as possible, no matter how they behave in prison.

Then there's the Maryland Parole Commission, which uses its own little tricks to empty cells. They revoke parole for bad behavior but often don't take away good time credits either, resulting in early, sometimes immediate release. They wait for new convictions rather than revoke parole for other violations, ensuring that any revocation will run concurrently to a new sentence. And rather than work independently, they march to the tune of the DOC, such as with a "special project" that accelerated the parole of violent offenders in the summer of 2009.

I wrote about these issues in greater detail in earlier articles: Early Release for Bad Behavior, Leaving Prison Early Part I, Part II , Part III and Secretly Releasing Prisoners, Part I and Part II. They document and explain why the prison and parole system needs a big spotlight to shine on it before we should increase the authority of parole commissioners (who in turn rely on prison officials.) Until they change how they do business, I prefer keeping the governor in the picture, who at least is directly accountable to the people.

But how can we change the way they do business? First, end the practice of awarding good time credits up front, before a criminal serves any time. Credits should be earned.

Second, make public all prison records involving misbehavior, just as court cases are public. I can think of no justification for hiding this information from citizens who are footing the bill for incarceration. And not only should the information be available upon inquiry, DOC should regularly report on the number of disciplinary incidents and hearings, together with their results.

Third, create the same transparency for parole revocation hearings. These should be a matter of public record available upon inquiry and regularly reported upon.

Fourth, reform the whole system of concurrent sentences between new and old sentences. We need truth in sentencing.

Fifth, require the Department of Public Safety to publish the risk assessment tools it uses, and make each inmate's risk assessment open for public inspection.

With transparency like that, we should see a more thoughtful, more accountable DOC and Parole Commission. We should see agencies focused upon risk and public safety, rather than, in the words of Parole Commission Chair David Blumberg, "population control."

Then maybe we can take the governor out of it.