How it works? ‘it’s a crapshoot’

The Kentucky Parole Board is composed of nine members appointed by the governor. Members are required to have five years of experience in related areas such as education, corrections, law enforcement, social work, medicine or law, or have previously served on the board for five years. Other than a requirement for a balance between political parties, there are no stipulations such as racial or gender balance.

Here are the basics about the parole process:

In Kentucky, most inmates are eligible for parole (supervised release) after a specified portion of their sentence is served. The decision about release lies with the parole board. For the lower-level Class C and D cases (property crimes, marijuana trafficking near schools, etc.), the parole board reviews the inmate files and decides about their release based on written materials. For Class A and B felonies (such as those discussed in the main story), the inmates are interviewed by two representatives from the nine-member parole board, in person or by closed-circuit TV.

Before meeting with the inmate, board members meet with any victims who object to the release. Victims or their families may argue against the inmate’s release, usually emphasizing the negative impact the crime has had on their lives. They can write letters to be entered in the inmate’s file. Very seldom does a victim speaks of forgiveness, lending support to release. In one case, one brother killed another. Their mother came to the victim impact hearing forgiving her remaining son and begging for his release. He was released on his first parole hearing.

Supporters of the inmate’s release may enter letters into the file, as well, but cannot speak with the board. They can attend the hearing with prior permission, but view it via remote feed. While they cannot speak, they are acknowledged as supporters.

The hearing that determines the inmate’s fate usually lasts 20 to 40 minutes. Most interviews are conducted over closed-circuit TV. Each hearing is recorded on an audio disc available to the public for $3. The recordings are kept on file for 18 months.

After talking with the inmate and reviewing the file, the two board representatives deliberate in private. Those discussions are not made public or recorded. If the members disagree over the decision, or if they believe the inmate should get the maximum deferment (the amount of time before their release can be reconsidered), the entire board votes.

Then three things can happen:

—The inmate can be granted parole and released under supervision within 60 days.

—The inmate can be deferred, meaning they can see the parole board again in a specified number of months (which translates into years). Currently, any deferment longer than 60 months (five years) has to be voted on by the full board. Disagreements between representatives also are returned to the board.

—In certain cases, the inmate can be given a “serve-out” which means they must serve their entire sentence without seeing the parole board again. People with sentences of “life with the possibility of parole” will never be released.

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Regulations stipulate an objective approach to parole decision-making, but a review of cases makes it clear that personalities play at least an equal part. Much depends on the luck of the draw as to whom the parole board interviewers will be. Some members approach the inmate with patience and encouragement. Others push and even taunt the inmate to see if he/she can handle pressure. Some use harshness or sarcasm when the inmate gets flustered, or begins to cry from nervousness, whereas others encourage them to take their time to collect themselves.

It is often obvious in reviewing the recordings that the board members are reading the file while interviewing and are not familiar with the activities of the person being interviewed. At times, if they are personally at the institution, board members decline to review the packet of achievements the inmate brought to the meeting.

Decisions of parole supposedly are made using evidence-based, objective criteria starting with the Parole Guidelines Risk Assessment completed by the Department of Corrections, which DOC says has been validated to predict release success. This is different from the risk assessment that is mandated to be done along with input from the inmates. There is a general misunderstanding about this, and most prisoners do not realize they are being judged on a document most do not know about and is not part of the official record. In fact, the instrument used is designated “For Parole Board use only and at their discretion. This is a confidential record.”

In every case I have reviewed, the inmate is walked through the excruciating details of the crime, even though the details are in the record and may have occurred decades before.

Inmates often tell me they have a difficult time turning the conversation to a discussion about how they have changed in prison, or to point out accomplishments. Regulations stipulate that the inmate is to be asked about planned living arrangements and support in the event he/she is released. In reviewing recordings, I have found that does not always occur. For example, before his hearing, one inmate had arranged for a local re-entry group to sponsor him, and he had been accepted by a respected halfway house paid for by the group. The parole members never asked about his plans, and he said he got flustered and didn’t think to bring it up.

In determining the parole recommendation, the Board is directed to consider the most recent risk and needs assessment, the criminal record, institutional behavior, institutional employment and reports of physical and mental evaluations. Consideration of involvement in education and life-skills programs is not mandated in most cases but is an understood part of the decision-making.

It is the unpredictable and variable decisions by the various board members that cause the most internal upheaval. No pair of board members consistently reaches the same decisions, despite looking at the same records. Inmates are told in treatment that if they take the rehabilitative programs needed, have excellent behavior records, work on the personal issues that led to their incarceration, and lead exemplary lives within the prison setting, that they will be released when their minimum sentence is served.

A few are.

But others with the same achievement and crimes are deferred again and again with no suggestions for improvement. It is required they be given a reason for their deferral and, regardless of any changes they have made over the past decades, the only reason given for their continued incarceration is the “seriousness of the crime.” They watch others with the same, or worse, crimes released while they remain behind bars.

And there is no prediction, or sense to be made of the decisions, other than the vocal opposition of victims. Many question if vocal victims should be allowed the amount of power they have to keep apparently rehabilitated individuals locked up while others without opposition go free.

While the parole process supposedly is regulated, most people agree it does not work as it should in a predictable or understandable way. In my interviews, the most common description of the parole process given by administrators, staff and prisoners is “it’s a crapshoot.”

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