Saturday, July 07, 2007

How about some balance on the Board of Pardons and Parole?

In the wake of Bryan Collier's move from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Parole Division to become deputy director, I found myself wondering more about the Board of Pardons and Parole and the commissioners who make Texas parole decisions. (TDCJ's parole division makes recommendation, but the parole board must finally approve inmates' release.) Here's the list of board members and commissioners.

I've got a lot to learn about Texas' parole system, but in my mind's eye I always (perhaps naively) thought of the parole board as sort of a back-end jury - representatives of the public who made prison release decisions independently of law enforcement bureaucrats just like a jury decides guilt or innocence instead of a prosecutor or (unless a jury trial is waived) a judge.

That may be the theory, but imagine a jury pool made up entirely of police, ex-prison wardens and former prosecutors and you get a better sense of who's on the Board of Pardons and Parole. Of the seven parole board members and 12 commissioners who make all release decisions, the primary professional background for 17 of the 19 is in law enforcement or criminal justice, judging from their bios. Nobody from the defense bar. No victim advocates, prison ministry workers, civil rights leaders or inmate family members. Not even any average citizens with backgrounds outside the justice system. There's nobody on the BPP to balance things out at all.

Perhaps more startling: Eight of the 19 parole decisionmakers in Texas went to college at tiny Sam Houston State University in Huntsville (a central-east Texas town that's the site of the largest Texas prison complex). By contrast, only two attended UT Austin, the same number who attended Southwest Texas State in San Marcos. There are no Texas Aggies on the parole board or among the commissioners.

So really these folks aren't representative of the public in Texas at all.

The governor and TDCJ have cobbled together a collection of decisionmakers who are nearly all from a narrow group with similar backgrounds. I suppose, then, it's not surprising when you get this result.

The Governor needs to begin taking every opportunity to appoint a more diverse group to the parole board (and by that I mean diversity of opinion, not skin tone), and TDCJ needs to seek other commissioners (truly their number needs to be expanded, in the long run) to ensure parole decisions are fair and untainted by the appearance of bias and groupthink.


Anonymous said...

Wow, someone finally hit the nail on the head ! The backgrounds of the BPP members and Commissioners are truly disturbing . Between that and the "nature of the crime" reasoning it is no wonder our prisons are bursting at the seams. It's "nature of the crime"and "nature of the parole decision maker"! Since I have a loved one in prison , I must make this an anonymous post or he will be a victim of the "discretion" of the BPP and never see the light of day. Thank you for your analisys of the BPP, not that anyone can change it ,but it helps to see it in print .

tttt said...

I just can't help but think the switch over to what I believe is really a ceremonial post (deputy executive director of TDCJ), was to put out those fires in the parole division. Bryan's a pretty decent and ethical dude whose leadership was waning. Five years is about as long as you can remain effective in any one leadership position in the TDCJ. It was time for him to move on and was probably at his request. Don't look for Brad Livingston to be there beyond five years.

Being the new DED is not a promotion in the sense of increased responsibility and oversight. Every person who has been in that position (Art Mosley and Ed Owens) never had to make hard decisions. It's just a ride in the car.

tttt said...

Grits said, "TDCJ needs to seek other commissioners (truly their number needs to be expanded, in the long run) to ensure parole decisions are fair and untainted by the appearance of bias and groupthink."

TDCJ has nothing to do, officially, with hiring parole commissioners. That's the presiding officer's job, as BPP is a separate state agency. But, as you well know, in these instances, Rissie Owens is married to Ed Owens and of course, Huntsville is her home.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Grits, for an excellent article on our illustrious Board of Pardons and Paroles. anonymous 11:21AM says, "Thank you for your analysis of the BPP, not that anyone can change it, but it helps to see it in print" Someone can and should change it, hopefully as fast as they can.

Personally, I vote, as I'm sure many of you do. I expect those I vote for to fight the battle for all people in Texas without excluding the disenfranchised prisoners in Texas. As it stands, we have a small handful of representatives that even acknowledge we have 160,000 prisoners in an overcrowded, understaffed, and often brutal prison system. God Bless Terri Hodge, Jerry Madden, and Sylvester Turner for stepping up to the plate to try and get bills passed to benefit prisoners rather than find more ways to punish them. Even John Whitmire tries, on occasion, to get the powers that be to change the current methods.

One of the biggest problems that a prisoner faces when coming under the scrutniny of the BPP are the rules that have been changed, rewritten, reworked, and clearly misunderstood by those who are supposed to understand them. We have the manadatory rules for those convicted under the mandatory law. Then we have descretionary~mandatory....clearly an oxymoron that no one seems to understand. I have witnessed time and time again, a prisoner I thought would parole get a two or three year set off, while one I was certain wouldn't make parole walk out the gates in Huntsville. There is absolutely to rhyme or reason to the whole process.

Finally, if the majority of BPP members are former or trained correctional personnel of some type, they have been programmed to hate convicts, all convicts. Such hated is not condusive to any form of fairness when it comes to judging another person and their subsequent freedom from prison. The deck is stacked long before the parole packet is submitted.

Then you have the sheer numbers of prisoners coming up for parole review in any given district. It is humanly impossible for three parole commissioners to thoroughly review, let's say 400 files in several days. The safe choice at that point would be another set off least they accidently release a true threat to society. Unfortunately, those that no longer pose that same threat are put in the same pile and given the usual...."nature of the crime"....Never are they given anything that indicates what the BPP would like to see them accomplish in order to make parole.

Bottom line: The best thing we could do for this state, its citizens, and the prisoners in this state would be to dismantle the BPP from the top on down. Then restructure the BPP with fair, unbias, intelligent, none political personnel. Take the appointment away from the governor and place it in the hands of legislative committee comprised of both parties equally. At that point we might get a qualified Director who is not rubbing shoulders with the governor and making decision based on party lines. Just a suggestion but clearly a huge need in this state.

Anonymous said...

Truth-in-Sentencing. Need I say more?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@8:02 - actually you probably do need to say more. Truth in Sentencing is a marketing slogan, not a policy. What do you mean specifically and how would it impact prison costs, etc.?

Anonymous said...

This is so sickening! This is a hate crime that needs attention. Why isnt there anyone that can change this? We surely do need balancing. These BPP are just plain heartless in every aspect. They would probaly deny their own mother! Yea as soon as Perry is out of there, things will get better, but remember voters, vote for change. I pray every day for a miracle to come thru for our loved ones incarcerated!

Anonymous said...

how can we dismantle that BPP? LETS DO IT!!IM ALL FOR IT!

Anonymous said...

I think, now that the phones bill has gone through (and we wait to see how TDCJ implement it, but I have money on it being only phones for trusty inmates AT TRUSTY CAMPS), that the farce that is laughingly called the parole system in texas will be next on the 'to do' list. I am told that one board member is also involved with the Mothers against Drink Driving group and has said openly that anyone convicted of a DWI should get life imprisonment. I dont think this counts as an acceptable bias.

Anonymous said...

I agree with many of everyone's points, but i also would like to throw in my two cent's worth. Let's keep the politician's out of the parole decision making process (the actual voting part), but let's DO get rid of the current board members and commissioners! Let's get people from every area of the state so the persons in the actual decision making process will be larger in number so more cases can be actually read and studied and handled efficiently and effectively. I would gladly volunteer several days a month to read files and vote intelligently and knowledgeably on potential parole/mandatory supervision prospects. Maybe each person selected should fill out an application, write a paper on why they want to serve, etc. and have a limit on the amount of time they can serve. Maybe no more than two consecutive years at a time. After they got a year's break in between, they could re-apply.

Also, when Ann Richards was governor and we got all those new prisons built, I knew then that the state would have to keep them as full as possible to justify all the expense of building the prisons. It's not only financial, but political. Many of the prison system's industries are big money makers for the state too.

We need to revamp TDCJ-PD completely and we need to make sure they are not allowed to act in secrecy as they have been allowed to do and with no one they have to answer to! We have allowed the BPP (TDCJ-PD) to have judiciary powers too and this is illegal! They are supposed to be part of the executive branch, not the judicial! JLH

Anonymous said...

WOW! My sentiments exactly. I am in Pennsylvania and completely agree that the BOP is completely archaic, elitist, and out of touch. I also think people who commit misdemeanors related to addiction who are rehabilitated should at the very least, be able to seal their records so that they can find employment without being discriminated against. But lobbysists line their pockets. I do a lot of work with women in recovery who committed non-violent misdemeanors and can't find jobs because their disability is broadcast all over the criminal record keeping system. Most women repeat the cycle of addiction because there is no reprieve for them. They can't get jobs after rehab, so they continue the cycle of addiction and perhaps petty crimes to feed their addiction or even to feed their children.

BigSkitzo said...

I am currently on parole, and am at lose for words.I served 14 years and 9 months on an 18 year aggravated sentence, for aggravated robbery.
First offense, 17 at the time of the crime, actually made bail for 2 months, till the court revoked my bail for reasons still never clear to me or my family.
I was a driver, in a high profile case, that resulted in one of my co defendants killing an innocent man.
It was a horrible situation, so I never cry about my time.
I was set off 5 times before making parole. I have been disciplinary clean for 9 years in prison, recieved my GED, a HVAC certificate if completion, and was not in any gang.
Yet I was set off year after year for "Nature of offense". Cool, do the crime do the time.
I was released on May 12th 2008, on a program called SISP (super intensive specialized parole), without ever being told why.
This program was initially created for sex offenders, or the most violent ex offenders.
I was a driver, with a squeeky clean prison record.
It is an Electric Monitor on your leg, combined with a large box, and base unit, installed at your home, halfway house.
You can only leave your house when it is on your approved schedule for job search, job, education, AA/NA, or daily needs, Food shopping.
And when you do leave you must take this large ,cumbersome, embarresing box with you.
It is a GPS system, so that parole can keep track of us.
It is extremely counterproductive for anyone, other than the sex offenders, it was created for.
I am not aloud any entertainment, no malls, parks, resturants. And all the other restrictions placed on normal parolees.
Parole never explained any of this to my family, whom I paroled to. All they did, was show up a week before I got out, installed the technology, and gave a brief description of my limitations.
At this point, after nearly 5 years, i didnt even blink.but still till i was out, I had no idea, that I would be on this kind of monitoring system, had never even heard of it.
I have a girlfriend, and now a 2 month old son, who live in Amarillo, she is in college up there, that I am moving too as soon as I get off this box.
But here lies the problem.Parole will only allow me to work at an onsight job, with no movement.
I already worked at The City of Austin recycling, on the back of the truck. This was allowed, because someone on my behalf contacted a higher up, and that person told our local parole office, to allow me to take the job.
I provided maps of my routes, weekly, but at times, they deviated, because we worked as a team, helping the other drivers.
One day, a co worker died, on the truck. So for 3 days my routes were different, and parole, point blank told me to quit the job, before they sent me back to prison.
12 an hour for an ex con with no experience, work my butt off, come home every day exhausted,and they forced me to quit this.
I am not a predator, but am being treated the same. Told point blank that "you are all the same to me", by a supervisor.
Anyway, trying to find a job became harder and harder.
Finally I was hired by Circuit City in november, haha!!, Well we all know how they worked out.
The company disbanded, and went bankrupt for good Jan 15th.
And in order for me to be removed off this SISP I have to have a full time job.
In this economy, were college grads are being laid off. I cannot find a job anywhere, and I have exhausted my resources, i stay on the internet filling out applications all day, resumes,cover letters, personalized emails.
I have went through Project RIO, and all they do is complain about the limitations of the GPS, they havent helped at all.
I have had to turn down 6 great jobs so far, because I cant deliver, drive trucks, do house inspections, work the airport (its too big), or multiple job sight, i.e. construction and janitorial.
Yet TDC trained me as an air conditioning and refrigeration tech, but will not allow me to work in this field untill Im off GPS.
So in 30 days I am eligble for review, adn I dont have a job, so I wont be let off.
I am 33, soon 34, and I am puttig a major strain on my family, being her, Im a grown man.
I worked my ass off in prison for 12 years, crazy hours for free, just to build up a work ethic, and here Im not allowed to work, or given any help finding this so called job, i have to have to get off this SISP.
I miss my woman, and my child, I wonder why they even let me go, if they werent going to let me be free.
I understand that there are evil people coming home, dangerous predators, despicable men who slipped through the cracks.
But Im not that one. Hell, the judge who convicted me in 1993, who is still on the stand, wrote a letter, saying I had done enough time.
Parole has turned my families home into a prison.
Thats there answer to easing over crowding, to put the onus on the families.
It is wearing away at me every day, depression, anxiety, laziness. My health suffers, i am athletic, and I can never leave this house. I ran 10 miles a day in prison, played basketball, lifted weights, now im just getting out of shape.
This is becoming more and more normal, every time I go to parole, i see more people on this GPS, and before it was 17 to 1, ratio (sex offenders to non sex offenders) now there are more non sex offenders being put on monitors.
I read on here that a large majority of the parole board has roots in Huntsville, thats true, i know several of them from the inside, and Rissie Owens is one of the worst human beings you could meet
There is rampant nepotism, and fraternity in TDCJ, all over, especially in the parole process.
Any outside agaency, could look at the Texas BPP and laugh hysterically.
Just venting, but this is the new thing SISP, for non sex offenders, yet still treated as such, de-humanizing.