Thursday, April 03, 2008

Whitmire: Parole board, TDCJ, must do a better job explaining parole decisions to inmates and their families

A significant portion of yesterday's Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing focused on the parole process, with several interesting points highlighted during the discussion. (Video from the hearing is available online here.)

Chairman John Whitmire was in top form, politely but firmly taking TDCJ officials and parole board chair Rissie Owens to task for not doing enough to notify inmates why their parole is denied. The failure to do so, he said, harms guard and prisoner safety and makes rehabilitation less likely because offenders don't think there's anything they can do to achieve parole faster. As a result, they don't participate in programs, etc., or become frustrated and catch new disciplinary cases.

The parole board notifies inmates of approvals and denials through a letter that's delivered by a TDCJ parole officer assigned to each institution. Whitmire expressed concern that the entity that makes the decision is not the one that informs the inmate why their parole is denied. In many cases, he observed, inmates are functionally or entirely illiterate, and the letter, he said, is quite complex and bureaucratic.

Those arguments made a lot of sense to me, and better communication about parole decisions likely would improve inmates' behavior in prison as well as ameliorate bad will among inmate families. The Chairman said his office receives about 300 letters a month from inmates and their families (I'm surprised it's not more than that!), and that the most common complaint he hears is that people don't understand why they weren't paroled, or what they have to do to earn release from prison.

Another excellent discussion centered on whether new in-prison treatment capacity would improve Texas' parole rates. To fully grok this issue you must know that even though Texas prisons are completely full, that's entirely by choice - specifically from decisions by the parole board.

According to statistician Tony Fabelo's presentation in San Antonio in February (power point, see slide 7), 88,000 inmates, or 2/3 of the Texas prison population are eligible for parole, and more than half of parole eligible inmates (55%) have a non-violent crime as their main offense of record.

The committee devoted a great deal of discussion to drug and alcohol offenders who've been approved for parole pending completion of a treatment program. But these programs are so backlogged that at one point, the Chairman said, it took as long as a year after an inmate's parole was approved just to get into a six month treatment program. (TDCJ executive director Brad Livingston testified the average wait is down to 3 months for male inmates.)

Whitmire and others rightly declared that TDCJ's goal should be to provide treatment before an inmate is eligible for parole, so that if that's all that's standing between them and freedom they could be processed sooner and free up space for more dangerous offenders. Before last session, TDCJ only had 500 treatment beds in its entire prison system. The Legislature added 1,000 more, all of which are now up and running, helping eat into the waiting list for these programs, Livingston said.

In other parole-related matters, Sen. Whitmire and parole board chair Rissie Owens have clearly been engaged in significant behind the scenes disagreements over her refusal to implement a requirement in the Sunset bill that parole board members give a detailed explanation when their decisions fail to fall within release guidelines. Owens claimed technical barriers to implementation that quite frankly I found disingenuous and easily surmountable. She's hanging her hat on the strictest possible interpretation of SB 909, when IMO her board has plenty of discretion to craft a rule that would make the legislation work.

Unlike some past hearings where Owens and Whitmire butted heads publicly, her testimony yesterday was marked by numerous references to conversations outside the hearing room between her, Whitmire, and his staff, with the Chairman expressing his desire to "help" her figure out how to implement the law. There was tension, but Mrs. Owens did not exhibit the level of open defiance she has in the past.

Whitmire also questioned Owens and Livingston about DWI offenders who are frequently denied opportunities for treatment, apparently, because many have relatively short sentences and the waiting lists made it impractical. As a result, many just sit out their full term. The Chairman said he'd seen many DWI cases where an offender had been convicted five or six times (which would qualify them for up to 99 years or life in prison), but who'd never received treatment while incarcerated. That's amazing to me; you'd think you'd at least try the treatment option before locking someone up for decades.

Finally, CURE representative Joan Covici came in from Dallas to encourage the Committee and the parole board to rethink parole policies for inmates sentenced to life. Many such offenders are elderly people who committed extremely serious crimes in their youth, but are now for the most part not a significant threat, she declared.

Covici said the most common reason these offenders were denied parole was the "nature of the crime," something that's unchangeable, meaning nothing they can do to demonstrate rehabilitation could overcome the presumption against them. She estimated there might be 10,000 such inmates in that position system-wide, and encouraged the committee and the parole board to evaluate them based on future dangerousness instead of the nature of a decades old offense. (In addition to being the right thing to do from a justice standpoint for many offenders, her suggestion would also save the state a ton of money in health costs for elderly inmates, who take up a disproportionate amount of healthcare resources.)

The parole process has needed this type of scrutiny for many years, so I'm glad to see Chairman Whitmire and the Criminal Justice Committee continue to bird dog this incredibly important subject.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

Senator Whitmire what an admirable man and what a great job you are doing.

I would encourage you to continue to stay after the BPP and make the parole people who were or no longer a threat to society. Also, when someone has been paroled how can the BPP justify keeping them for another year and not call this a set off? This seems to be happening frequently and this is just wrong. The BPP has just found a round about way to keep someone longer and not have to report why to the Senate and House committees the reasons. This needs to be stopped. The BPP appears, under Mrs. Owens to think they can do whatever they deem to be more punishment instead of looking at the individual as just that, an individual.

I along with many ask the Legislators to hold the BPP accountable for the lack of concern for the person they are looking at than for their own personal reasons.

Anonymous said...

I can answer the questions of why an inmate's parole is denied and what he (or she) can do to be granted parole. It is denied for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with what he has done while in prison, and he can do absolutely nothing to be granted parole. Parole Board decisions are routinely denied because of "nature of the crime", "alcohol related", "drug related", or any one of a laundry list of xeroxed reasons on their denial form. Board members obviously give a greater weight to facts of the crime rather than facts of behavior or rehabilitation. By the same token, an inmate can complete every required program and more, be case-free for the entire sentence, have a parole file filled with letters of support, own his own home to parole to, and have a standing job offer upon his release, all to no avail. If Juanita Gonzalez and others like her decide you won't be released, you won't be. Period. I know because I just described my son who completed a full 8-year sentence last July and was denied parole at all three reviews. When I questioned Ms. Gonzalez after the last serve-all decision, she told me because somebody died (intoxication manslaughter), he wouldn't be paroled. I don't mean to minimize my son's offense, and he takes full responsibility for his behavior. The issue here is common sense and public safety. He was not denied parole because it was an issue of public safety. He was denied parole because an individual board member had her own version of who deserves parole and who doesn't. And no one can stop them (or is willing to try).

Anonymous said...

Grits, just wondering if anything was brought up in the meeting regarding the Risk Assesment Guideline that the parole board uses. That in itself is a joke and someone needs to take a very close look at how the parole board uses it to base their parole decisions on.

One more question, do you have any idea if the Texas Criminal Justice Legislative Oversight Committee has been formed that was mandated by the Sunset Review and made part of SB909 to keep a watch over the parole board. I know that Craddick named Sylvester Turner and Debbie Riddle of Houston to this committee, but I cannot find where any other people have been appointed to this. I know that Jerry Madden serves as a member, but can't find any other members nor can I find anything out about this committee, meetings, contact information, etc.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

No talk about Risk Assessments in this hearing. The overall theme was SB 909 compliance (the Sunset bill), so they were sticking pretty closely to those topics.

Owens said the parole board had nine action items from SB 909. The one about explaining deviation from the guidelines was the only one she was balking at implementing.

sunray's wench said...

If it is now the law that the BPP must explain their actions when the deviate from their own rules, will someone please tell me how they can openly refuse to do this and STILL be in their jobs?

Anonymous said...

Who or can someone FIRE this Owens lady? She needs to go if she is not going by rules or guidelines. There has to be someone to get rid of these bpp members when not doing the right job.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sunray, it's that whole "separation of powers" thing. The Legislature makes the law, but only the executive can enforce it. And who is the executive in this case, who appoints Rissie Owens? Rick Perry. So if the Governor doesn't care enough to make her do it, she basically doesn't have to - or at least that appears to be her position.

She's quite a piece of work, I'll give her that.

Anonymous said...

I agree Mrs. Owens should be releaved of her position. She is the number one factor keeping prisons full. That is not her job or I have read the job requirements for her position wrong. She is to keep the BPP running smoothly, getting paroles reviewed and making sure all hired positions are filled. The Governor appoints the one person who is head of each Region and the other two people are the reviewers and are hired.

Maybe we need to investigate all the appointed or should I say annointed ones to see exactly why they are denying so many paroles and if it is them or Mrs. Owens. Something has to be done to get some of the people in prison out. We can no longer afford to let this continue this misuse of funds and ruining of families and lives. What good does this do for Texas and the people who pay for this crime by the BPP and TDCJ? It appears all suggestions fall on deaf ears, but bless Senator Whitmire and Representative Madden the continue to try. The pain and hurt to those incarcerated who have to tolerate the deplorable conditions and abuse and those who work for TDCJ who try to dehumanize people and cause more hurt and do nothing to help, should all take a look in the mirror. No one is immune to the injustices Texas thrives on this day and time. The money is spent in the wrong places and only causes more anger and hostility and if you can't help people with their problems, don't add to them!!
Parole those 80,000 who are elgible and let them go home and give them a chance to live their lives with their families, heal and find happiness some for the first time.

Anonymous said...

Senator Whitmire....Thank you for standing up and fighting for the inmates and the rights that they are denied. We appreciate the fight and continue to encourage you to do so! It is people like you in authority that make us proud to be a tax payers!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful man! Senator Whitmire, PLEASE RUN FOR GOVERNOR!!!How about President!! I would vote for you in a second!! Perry and Owens your day will come! to an end! Quick acting BIG! Keep fighting for us Senator! I encourage all to write and keep writing to Senator Whitmire and thank him for all the good he is trying to do!! Thank you Jesus too!

Anonymous said...

Yea someone surely needs to investigate on that owens lady. she needs to be with her husband-RETIRED! OR GO SOMEWHERE ELSE! Where the sun dont shine! LOVE YOU SENATOR!

sunray's wench said...

I have emailed the link to this post to Sen. Whitmire's office. He needs to be thanked as well as asked to help.

Anonymous said...

I have written Senator Whitmire's office at least twice. Perhaps he heard part of what I wrote. Bless you, Senator. My husband was 13 years on parole, missed meetings, returned to prison almost three years ago! Strong volunteer, no violations of law. We are buying our home, he is no risk to society - an awful crime when he was in his early 20's, now 10 grandchildren. What is wrong with this picture? They set him off for five years - for missing meetings no less - the parole board had the option of ISF for first offense violation of parole. But, no, he cannot change the NATURE OF THE CRIME!!! They are not offering classes, programs, nothing. He goes to Galveston for health problems. Please help us. I will check back to see if anyone comments they can help. Thank you and God bless.

sunray's wench said...

to anon @ 11.31 ~ keep at them, that's all I can say. Be as vocal and as public as possible about it and someone will take notice. And not just you either ~ everyone who has had loved ones set off because of the "nature of offence" needs to start making some noise. It simply is not a legitimate reason, if the legislature says they are eligible for parole consideration, to be used for denial.

Michelle S. said...

I'm a little late posting to this, however I just found you after my mother was denied parole for a fourth time for a first time non-violent offense. I must say that I am both sad and relieved to know that there are other families that are falling under the same cloud of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Why is the BPP not respecting the guidelines of their counterpart agency TDCJ? Those are the only guidelines that inmates are educated on. How are they supposed to know and satisfy the expectations of the Parole Board if they aren't even being properly notified of the Board's decisions against them? What's the point in demoralizing the inmate when they are repeatedly set off for illegitimate reason? It seems to be a no-win situation for inmates and their families when they are continually being judged by the same group every year. Why is there no oversight or at least audits of these decisions on a yearly basis? Getting information from the BPP is like pulling teeth. It is my belief that families of inmates should reasonably be able to expect a certain level of transparency from the BPP in getting the answers that they deserve.
Thanks for letting me put my two cents in. Keep up the good fight everyone!

Anonymous said...

I recommend that readers of this blog take a look at www.fixtexasparole.com and www.parolereform.com. Attorney Norman Sirak is suing the Texas parole board to obey the laws of the Texas legislature--which shows what the situation really is. I encourage everyone to join attorney Sirak's lawsuit against the Texas parole board. Thank you, James Harrison, Charlottesville, Virginia

Anonymous said...

Maybe everyone should start sending letters of complaint to Governor Rick Perry office to get Rissie Owens out of office afterall, he's contemplating on running for governor another term Perhaps he will see what type of impact this will have on him.

Anonymous said...

For the life of me, I canNOT understand - -WHY- -the BPP does NOT have to answer to anyone- -where pray tell did someone "appoint" them Gods???
They are a service to OUR state, they should have to answer to OUR people -how hard is this?
Why in the world would anyone change a thing if they never had to answer to anyone? Doesn't take a master degree to figure this out.
They put down, "denied, regarding to crime"- -well, bleesed be- -ya think he/she did a "crime" to get INTO prsion? Now- -about getting OUT- -that has NOTHING to do with it (the crime). Does anyone on this great "board" have any common sence or is that not a requirement?
You are "supposed" to prove yourself to be worthy of getting out- -NOT prove that you never did the crime- -what a sorry poor subsitute for humons on this board, with no logic yet- -and out tax dollars put them there- -very, very wrong picture here!!
Wake up Texans, VOTE, get a REAL governor to help us, not a "good ole boy" jerk! HE picked them- -so HE can go else where and then WE can get someone with a BRAIN for once!!
Prisons units are even closing down, short of officers, and this stupid parole board won't release inmates- -what is WRONG with this picture- -officers are there to PROTECT the inmates, if they AREN'T there, why have the inmates? super DUH!! We can ALL thank the great Gov. Perry, total rejeck of our state! His logic, don't give officers a raise, don't parole inmates out, don't have the parole board answer to anyone, but let's keep Texas first- -at what? being stupid???
Wake up people!

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget about the crime victims. Folks that have responded to this blog likely have minimized the seriousness of the offense(s). The Parole Board members and commissioners are doing a great job. Don't do the crime if you can't do the time.

Anonymous said...

Just wondering if you can tell me if there is an appeal process for a "set off" ?

trutexas said...

Does SB909 allow a parolee a conditional release from parole.Many states do this. Exmp. A person rated minimum supervision has served 6 years on parole with 2 years left to go. Can they do the last 2 years with out reporting to a parole officer. With the ability to bring them back in within the 2 years. Can a parole officer recommend this in Texas now?.

trutexas said...

Does SB909 allow a parolee a conditional release from parole.Many states do this. Exmp. A person rated minimum supervision has served 6 years on parole with 2 years left to go. Can they do the last 2 years with out reporting to a parole officer. With the ability to bring them back in within the 2 years. Can a parole officer recommend this in Texas now?.

Anonymous said...

Released prisoners in their 50's, 60's and 70's have so many health problems that they instantly go on disability, SSI, social security, medicare/medicaid, public housing, welfare, food stamps and everything else--which costs Texas a FORTUNE that TDCJ and the state legislature don't breathe a word about to the public. So Texas "tough" really means Texas "stupid" and the public pays a fortune in hidden costs because they are too simple minded to see the big picture. Now that is what I call justice. Keep building those prisons YOU ALL oh and by the way, since TDCJ can't hire the guards they need, even though some guards have worse arrest records than those they are "guarding" the staffing problem is quite simple---hire illegal aliens like the rich and famous of Texas have been doing since World War 2. When TDCJ tells the public that it only costs a dollar or two a day to house a prisoner they usually don't tell the public about the dialysis and heart bypass operations that these old guys will be getting after they get out. Check out the website texasjailproject. Suck it up Texas---you have s------ yourselves so badly that YOU might be getting reduced benefits from social security, medicare and medicaid in the future as a result of TDCJ incompetence and parole board stupidity. Hey SUNSET committee lackeys, why don't you analyze THESE variables during your next study????? The funny thing is, Texas will be so deep in debt within a few decades that not even Mexico will want it................

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think inmates have too many rights and that they should be required to complete their whole sentence. Why keep putting drug dealers on the streets over and over again. Statistics show that at least 76 percent of inmates that are released return back to prison within 6 months to a year. Inmates and others want to blame law enforcement or society for their failure to be productive citizens. I think it is time for them to be held accoutable for their actions. It is call personal responsiblity.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Texas' 3 year recidivism rate is 28.3 percent. I defy you to back up your claim that 76% return to prison in 12 months. It's a lie.

Anonymous said...

The inmates at Sky View and Boyd are so old and sick that they may cost Texas as much money as Bush wants to give to Detroit in welfare. The good thing about all this is that Medicare and Medicaid payments to care for these old guys is going to balloon in the next five years---and this might the budget of Texas look like California. By making everybody serve full sentence Texans will bankrupt themselves---EXCELLENT.

Anonymous said...

One of the best kept TDCJ secrets is how many prisoners with Alzheimer's are still being incarcerated even though many are drooling on themselves. Never mind that they aren't a threat to anyone anymore. Could it be that TDCJ doesn't want Medicare and Medicaid to find out what the real story is here in order to con the fed into paying for TDCJ mistakes and coverups regarding the men who may need expensive care for the next 10 or MORE years? Don't worry TDCJ, the public won't rat you out to the feds that you will stick with the bills for all this.......

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mmitchum said...

mmitchum@comcast.net
I am thoroughly upset at the Texas parole board and applaud Senator Whitmire for his efforts to hold them accountable for what they do. My son was going to fight a case in Harris County a couple of years ago and the judge threatened him if he fought the case he would get 20 years. This scared my son so he accepted 4 years with the uuderstanding he would have a good chance to get out in 2. Two and 1/2 years passed and he came up for parole. He was denied because (1) he had a similar offense as a juvenile (2) he committed an offense while he had been on probation. The charge was aggravated assault. While we are not excusing what he did, he never hurt anyone and has never been locked up before. He has been a model prisoner and has taken every possible course he can take. The parole board should be locked up for not taking the time to review the file on a persons life before passing judgement. My son had a parole attorney that completely dropped the ball on this one.