Monday, August 31, 2009

Sam Sparks v. Rissie Owens: Federal judge may unmask secretive parole process

The Austin Statesman's Mike Ward brings word ("Court cases forcing change at parole agency," Aug. 31) of a recent clash between US District Judge Sam Sparks and an attorney from the Board of Pardons and Parole:
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks had heard enough. After several days of listening to attorneys for the State of Texas defend the state parole board's operations, he became exasperated by the testimony of a parole board lawyer.

"The lady is wrong. She is stating issues of the law that are wrong," he told the jury.

The rare display of judicial pique resulted in a mistrial after state lawyers objected that his remarks could have improperly influenced jurors. But Sparks had already made it clear that he had serious questions about whether parole board policies violate a prisoner's right to due process.

Sparks is not the first judge to make such findings. In three other cases in two years, Austin federal judges have questioned the legality of the state's policies for placing restrictions on parolees, particularly sex offenders, who face some of the strictest conditions on their parole. Across Texas, parole officials said, more than a dozen other lawsuits on the issue are pending.

The court cases have highlighted criticism of the parole board for not taking time to adequately review parole cases, for operating in secret, for not detecting errors in paperwork and for placing conditions on parolees that are not justified by the evidence. Although most of the cases so far have dealt with sex offenders, observers say that changing the rules for those cases could open the door to broader changes, including more openness.
RELATED: Federal judge: Parole board may have improperly labeled thousands as sex offenders.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I didn't think inmates had a constitutional right to parole to begin with. So what's the big deal?

Anonymous said...

They do have the right to judged by a jury of their PEERS though. The parole board is not a court nor a jury. if there is a law that allows for parole, then it should be transparent enough to allow oversight. What we have in this state is akin to the rack during the inquisition.

Anonymous said...

There is no constitional right to welfare or social security disability but courts have found that before these benefits be cut off the recipients are entitled to due process. I think similar thinking would be applied to the parole issue.

editor said...

Anon 4:14,
Obviously you did not read the article. One such problem cited in the article is the fact that some inmates are being told to register as a sex offender when paroled, and their crimes are not remotely sex related. Sex offenders are costly (to taxpayers) to monitor. When you expend resources on one parolee, that means another is not getting it. This has little to do with constitutional rights. However, I think there is a good argument that a person convicted of a non-sexual offense being required to register as a sex offender somehow violates his/her constitutional rights.

The article reveals this and many other instances where the sloppiness of those preparing the documentation for the parole hearings is causing problems. The lack of due process is not only harming the inmate, but the public as well. One such situation was mentioned where the inmate was listed as a murderer on his documentation, but the report to the parole board failed to mention that he gunned down a federal probation officer in front of a court house. This might make a difference at a parole hearing.

Bottom line: Integrity should be present to protect both the defendant and the public. Sometimes integrity has to be coerced via transparency.

-stircrazyintexas

Pirate Rothbard said...

Editor, the article does mention legality and due process. So it is something that's being discussed.

Boyness said...

OMG Texas dirty little secrets may become public?

SB said...

Sparks was the judge in the class action lawsuit filed against the parole board. It was eventually thrown out for some reason. Now the Judge is back and fighting and I hope he kicks butt!

Andres Morin III said...

Rissie Owens and dear 'ole Ed...."peas in a pod"......scandals, public outcry, and lawsuits are synonymous with their names. Yet, what does TDCJ/ TYC do??......lie, move them around, and, promote, promote, promote!! Did I mention promote??.....andy

Anonymous said...

Morrissey v. Brewer is the place to start for those curious about what process is due in parole revocations.

http://supreme.justia.com/us/408/471/case.html

sunray's wench said...

SB ~ when I read through the judgements on that particular suit, it was clear that Judge Sparks was frustrated that the case was missing vital legal elements that would have allowed him to be more sympathetic to the cause. He also seemed incredib;y frustrated at the blustering and unprparedness of the TDCJ and BPP counsel.

I think he understands that things are wrong, but he can only work within the law to fix them, and obviously would have difficulty in instigating action himself while remaining impartial.

Anon@4.14 ~ It may or may not be a constitutional right, but Texas law states that most inmates are eligible for parole after serving 1/4 of their time. The rest are generally eligible for parole at 1/2 time served unless thet fall under previous legislative laws or have the Death Penalty. The BPP is adding extra conditions and effectively changing the charges that an inmate was found guilty of, without any public accountablility to do so.

Don said...

I love anonymous!Look the true issue here is parole at 1/4 time or 1/2 time or whatever is offered over and over in the courts, but when a person works towards that end it is yanked out from under them over and over Due To The Severity of the Crime. Most of the time I feel Judges and attorneys take into account how much time they want to see a person spend (due to the severity of the crime) and then double it so at least that amount of time is spent. The parole board then uses their own discretion (HAR, HAR) to keep someone jailed for whatever purpose basically re-sentencing them to more time due to what they think the severity of the crime is thus circumventing the court system. Then they do not even allow the inmate to know what their parole guideline score is or how to even improve the score. The whole thing is a mess and something should be done to make the parole board do a better job. I could go on about this.

sunray's wench said...

Don ~ they also use "insufficient time served" as an excuse to deny parole, which is the one thing that goes absolutely against the TX statues and I can't believe that no one has challenged those decisions in the courts yet.

don said...

sunray's wench- another good point! I have looked at enough time sheets and had enough letters from folks in Texas prisons to know that the PB is less concerned with rehabilitation, which is the job of the TDCJ, and more concerned with either keeping prisons open or keeping their jobs, which come with a nice salary. There is little concern for the men and women who have good time sheets and could support themselves and their families were they out of prison. I personally would like to see the almost $3 billion TDCJ budget start decreasing instead of increasing every year. How about the rest of you guys? People need to check out how the parole system really works and not be tricked by some bogus percentage numbers on paroles granted. The PB needs to be held accountable for what they are doing and not be allowed to hide behind that smoke screen!

Anonymous said...

Yay!! I can't tell you how excited I am to see this article, and the ensuing comments, about the BPP and how completely screwed up it is and how it completely screws over Texas inmates!!! I have a very dear friend incarcerated at this time who signed for a 3 year sentence while being told by his attorney that he would have to serve the 6 months State Jail time but that once it was completed, would be eligible for parole and should be out not long after that 6 month period was up. Well, that 6 months was done as of March 25, 2009 and today is September 2, 2009 - almost another 6 months in the system - and he is still incarcerated. Not only that, when he met with the BPP interviewer, his file had several erroneous items in it, such as gang affiliation (not even remotely affiliated with any gangs), number of revocations of probation (the correct answer would be 0, but the state had it as 2 I believe...), etc. Now, he has been moved to Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Release Facility (Now that's a whole other can of worms I won't open this morning... what a joke!!) so he can feel all warm and fuzzy inside about being released "any minute now,"however not only was he denied parole earlier this year (1 of the reasons? "Not in the system long enough..." - I call total B.S. on that one!) It took over 6 weeks and a visit to the Parole Liaison at Mineral Wells to find out that he was denied! No visit from anyone, no letter from the Board, no word whatsoever until he went looking for answers!! And then was told that "without the letter from the Board stating the reasons he was denied, there was NO WAY to find out the reasons for denial... the "letter" that was supposedly sent could not be duplicated??!!?? What the hell kind of nonsense is that??? I know there is a file on him stating why he is in prison in the first place... why would a copy of the parole decision not be placed in that file?? Isn't that kind of important information??
So, I'm so glad to see that Sam Sparks is challenging the BPP and their awful, secretive processes for beating these inmates down just a bit more. It's about time someone with some authority did this!!!
Thank you Judge Sparks!!

strawberry6977 said...

A quote from the article:
"Even though some convicts' files have thousands of pages, Sparks estimated that board members review and approve parole conditions for some of the worst offenders once every 12 minutes — assuming they take no break for lunch and work an eight-hour day. Former and current board members say it's probably less than that."

From the examples the article used of incorrect info (from going to over-the-top to too leniant) influencing the Parole decision...because of lack of time to thoroughly review the files. Not to mention, there was a mistake on my husband's Denial letter (major accident, when he wasn't even in an accident)...luckily they gave us a copy, or else the mistake would still be there!

Hey, we all know with lack of time and staff...mistakes happen. HOWEVER, If they want to continue running a thin staff, then they at least need to allow the inmates/family open access to their files to make sure everything is correct. OR, they need to hire more staff to get the job done right the 1st time.

Anonymous said...

Sparks needs to retire to senior senior go away status.

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