No parole for old men …A plea for reform

In the story below, Gaye Holman, who has spend decades studying Kentucky prisons, writes about the need to reform the parole system. Also, read these sidebars on how the parole system works, and how victim impact statements are treated differently.

Twenty-nine years ago, William Ray Stark Jr. headed out of his house to seek revenge. Someone stole money from him; he was going to get back his losses. First, he robbed a Hardees restaurant near UofL, the next day a video rental store on Bardstown Road. Three months later he was dragged by the police from his hiding place under a car in downtown Louisville. He had an unloaded gun tucked in the waist of his pants. He is still in prison almost three decades later.

Today, Stark admits that nothing about his actions made sense. He was young and angry but hadn’t been in any major problems before. He graduated from Seneca High School, but ran with a bad crowd after he left school. “All the people I robbed were innocent people who never wronged me or even knew me, he explained in a letter.

His rap sheet shows him charged with 19 first-degree robberies and two assaults occurring over a three-month period. He denies his involvement in many of the incidences, including one of the assaults. He admits to nine robberies and one assault when he hit a clerk with the butt of his gun, injuring her, when she refused to give him money. He claimed the police dumped other crimes on him to clean up cases of unsolved robberies. He insists he was out of town when some of the charges reportedly took place. I asked a retired police officer if Stark’s claim rang true. “It’s possible,” he said.

Stark was offered a plea bargain of eight years. That was forever to a man who just turned 21, and he demanded a day in court to insist he did not commit all the crimes. He refused the plea bargain, which would have made him eligible for parole in a few years — and he went to trial.

He was given a sentence of 317 years.

That is not a misprint. Three hundred and seventeen years for a string of robberies where no one suffered long-term physical injury. It is a wide-spread rumor among inmates that the over-loaded Jefferson County courts frown on offenders who insist on jury trials.

Now, 29 years later, Stark has been considered for parole four times and turned down each time by the parole board in spite of a positive institutional record. The reason given for his last deferment was that his crime was violent and he possessed a gun. He believes, instead, that it was a matter of race in a system where prejudice and discrimination are prevalent, he says.

Stark claims he has changed during the years he has grown up in prison. He returned to school, receiving an Associate of Arts degree and academic credentials in cooking and baking. In prison, he worked as a teacher’s aide, helping GED students. He has taken all the treatment programs available to him. He has never misbehaved causing his “good time” to be taken away. (For every day of good behavior, an inmate gets “good time” credit that lowers the amount of time to be served.)

Stark, after being told he was deferred for the fourth time, asked if there was anything he should be doing, or classes he should take. “No, just keep on,” he was told.

The high cost of it all 

Kentucky has spent almost $800,000 to keep Stark behind bars for 29 years, and the cost is rising. We need to ask if that is money well spent.

William Ray Stark Jr.

In 2017, Kentucky spent $570.5 million dollars on state corrections, according to the state’s Justice Reinvestment Work Group. It costs $293 million just to keep our adult correctional facilities running for a year. Kentucky Department of Correction figures from 2017 indicate the average annual cost per inmate in our state correctional institutions is $25,594.44. That amount increases, as the inmate ages.

Each year Corrections gobbles over 12 percent of our state’s monies, and that percentage is rising. Corrections is the third-largest expenditure for the state, behind only education and Medicaid. The unintended social costs add up as well. We are among the nation’s leaders in the percentage of our citizens who are locked up and 13 percent of Kentucky’s children have incarcerated parents — the largest in the nation — according to the Casey Foundation.

Are our citizens this bad or are we so scared that we can’t find ways to redirect these considerable dollars so that they can be more effective?

An email request for comment from the governor was unanswered. Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley’s office replied that he would not be available for comment. Varied efforts to contact the Parole Board Chair were also unsuccessful.

Shrinking the Prisons

Crime is not rising in our state. According to the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, from 1985 to 2015, the overall crime rate in Kentucky declined by 19 percent, and the violent crime rate declined by a whopping 28 percent. But incarceration rates have soared by 271 percent in that 30-year period. Currently, 24,000 of our citizens are behind bars, and it is projected that figure will increase by 4,400 bodies in the next decade. Our prisons have no room left to hold new offenders. County jails serve as the overflow, with inmates sleeping on cell floors. A controversial private prison has been reopened.

Kentucky officials, led by Gov. Matt Bevin and his Council on Criminal Justice Reform and the more recent off-shoot Work Group, agree we must reduce the present prison population. They say that can be done with changes in prosecution and sentencing, or prison populations can be reduced by the probation and parole system, but after the offender has served his/her minimum sentence.

There is new emphasis for prosecutors and judges to funnel young, drug-addicted offenders into treatment and diversion programs rather than into prisons. They are not the violent offenders, the public is carefully assured.

Probation and parole officers have been ordered to work with parolees who fail to follow guidelines but have not broken new laws. Fewer people are being returned to prison on parole violations. Those moves have had some success.

But the right- hand doesn’t seem to know what the left hand is doing, as Kentucky legislators recently increased the sentences for drug trafficking, not considering the unintended consequences on our overcrowded facilities.

Additionally, in the recent legislative session, lawmakers greatly increased the penalties for gang participation. Legislators, encouraged by the support of Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, decided it was better to send gang members to prison than it was to spend the money looking into the social issues that draw young people to gang activity. Later, cries of racism caused a slow-down of the bill, but the governor eventually signed it into law.

The other way to reduce prison populations is through parole, the release of those who have served their minimum required sentences. That has had mixed results. From 2014 to 2017, parole recommendation rates increased by 8 percent, according to the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy. The effort to clean prisons of people who might be treated in the community seems to be having some success. However, the face-to-face parole rates (which is the general category for the more serious class A and B felonies) has fallen by 6 percent during that same period. Fewer people with long sentences are being released. That practice, along with increased sentencing is pushing the prison population even higher.

‘Outliers’

Offenders charged with violent crimes, and those who have long sentences over 20 years, are not looked at for possible release, regardless of the time they have spent in prison. Kentucky spends $107 million each year on the more than 4,000 inmates with sentences longer than 20 years.

Most prisoners in the older-age group have long, often indeterminate sentences (for example, life with the possibility of parole). They fill our prisons as they age in place, stuck having learned the lessons intended, but with no opportunity to prove their rehabilitation or to contribute to the society they once harmed.

“We consider them ‘outliers’,” one official explained to me, refusing to be identified for publication. The general public stereotypes these inmates and is angry and frightened of them. Politicians and parole board members avoid leniency as they are afraid of public criticism in the event that a past violent offender reoffends. Others have given it no thought.

State Sen. Morgan McGarvey, a Louisville Democrat who was on the Governor’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform, told me the subject was neither talked about, nor looked at, when he served on the Council. He said he had little knowledge about long-term incarceration until our conversation. The subject raises interesting questions however, he added. He said the Council placed much emphasis on re-entry issues, but releasing the long-term incarcerated was not discussed.

“We all have the same goal of safe communities and safe neighborhoods,” he added.

The Council has been discontinued, but another smaller group is still looking into prison issues, he said. McGarvey is no longer involved.

In the meantime, as discussions continue, these long-term men and women are kept imprisoned, grow older, and we pay increasingly for their keep. The elderly inmates are moved into the Correction’s Health Care Center at Kentucky State Reformatory and Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women where many are fed and diapered or treated — all at taxpayer expense because they are refused parole or are granted special parole too late to find community care for them.

The figures and expenses can be looked at many ways, but the bottom line is that we are spending millions of dollars to keep people locked up long after many professionals believe it is beneficial and the inmates are no longer a danger to society.

Perhaps it is time to look at this aging group of previously violent offenders as a way to reduce our prison population and our state expenditures. It is important to realize that murder has one of the lowest recidivism rates of all crime categories.

Rehabilitation or Retribution?

Shifting attention to the considered release of these older offenders forces us to consider why we lock people up. Do we hope for rehabilitation or do we demand retribution? Do we lock them up for deterrence to keep them from reoffending or are we trying to teach others by their punishment? Deciding the purpose of incarceration should drive prosecutions, sentencings and treatment in the prisons.

William Stark was given a 317-year sentence. His punishment seems extreme, no matter how one looks at it. It involved theft more than violence. But questions become thornier when a life is taken in the commitment of a crime. “Throw away the key” is the default reaction of even the most compassionate and rational of people who have cut their teeth on the “eye-for-an-eye” exhortation. The importance of rehabilitation takes a back seat to retribution when it comes to these offenders. The long-term incarcerated, once violent offenders but now contrite, present us with moral, intellectual and financial dilemmas.

Homicide

Hal Cobb was a minister of music for an evangelical congregation when he killed his wife in a second of anguish. He had never had legal difficulties; he loved his wife and daughter, worked hard.

His emotional life was in shambles. Under pressure from his fundamentalist religion, he believed his emerging awareness that he was gay was a deep sin both for him and his wife that must be eliminated. His wife just learned that she was pregnant again. She was overwhelmed, and Hal, himself agonized, was drawing a hot bath for her in an effort to comfort her. According to Cobb, her sobs caused him to flash back to traumatic childhood memories and, within a few thoughtless seconds, he reached for the hair dryer and threw it in the tub, electrocuting her.

Hal Cobb

He lied about the occurrence, blaming it on their cat, but he carried the guilt with him for the next nine years as he raised his daughter and learned to embrace his homosexuality.

Still burdened with guilt, he shared the truth with his roommate, who turned him in to the police. He has been in prison for the past 23 years, charged with a life sentence.

In talking with people about his case, I find the electrocution causes him to be judged more harshly than if he had pulled the trigger of a gun. His sexual orientation may also influence decision-makers in a largely homophobic environment.

Cobb has been considered and rejected, for parole four times. The last time he received the longest deferral possible other than serving out his entire life sentence. He cannot be considered for parole again for another 10 years when he will be 69 years old. An ideal inmate, Cobb has not been in trouble, participates in the acclaimed Shakespeare Behind Bars, has earned several academic and vocational degrees, is an award-winning writer, and holds a respected job in the institution.

The first time Cobb came up for parole he was given a 48-month deferral. Next time, the same amount. The third time he was deferred 60 months and, now, 120 months. Despite his perfect record and many achievements, his deferral is increasing rather than decreasing, which is opposite of the way the system is supposed to work.

Cobb speaks openly about his crime, imprisonment and life behind bars. He is agonized about his action years before. He has not seen nor heard from his daughter, or most family members, since his incarceration. When Cobb asked the parole board some years ago if anyone objects to his release, he said he was told his question was out of line. However, in listening to the recording of his latest parole hearing, it is obvious from the questioning that there are people actively opposing his release.

No one who has known him for the past decade doubts Cobb’s rehabilitation or the success he could achieve if released. However, his advancing years will make employment and self-support difficult if he is released.

Cobb will be incarcerated 31 years before he is considered for parole again. Most probably, the same people will reappear at his hearing with an unforgiving, yet understandable, anger and will argue against his release. The question at the heart of this situation, where clearly no one wins, is how long the victims’ anger should be allowed to weigh on decisions that impact all of us.

High-Profile Cases

The situation gets even more complicated when it is high profile with much media coverage.

Jerry Guenthner, football star and convicted murderer, has been the subject of contentious dialog concerning the parole process each of the three times he has been considered for parole. A First Team Catholic All-American football player at DeSales High School in 1983, he had caught the eye of major college recruiters until his increasing drug usage overcame his talent.

A low-level dealer as well as a user by the age of 21, Guenthner ended the life of Officer John Robert Weis on a snowy night in a church parking lot in The South End of Louisville. The ongoing undercover drug deal went bad in a five-second gun battle in which both men emptied their guns toward the other. Weis, a Shively police officer, was killed and Guenthner, seriously wounded. Guenthner has been imprisoned since then, 32 years and counting.

The case has been controversial and high profile from the beginning with underlying allegations of police missteps and a questionable additional charge of robbery, which made Guenthner eligible for the death penalty. While there was no explanation of what was stolen, the charge added 20 years onto the sentence. The jury, apparently concerned about the facts as presented, rejected the request for death, bypassed a life sentence and sent Guenthner to prison for 65 years.

Infuriated, the police community swears it will see that he serves every day of the sentence.

Jerry Guenthner

During Guenthner’s last hearing on a Monday afternoon in February 2011, the meeting room in the Health Services Building in Frankfort was standing-room only. Family of the victim, former command staff of Louisville Metro and Jefferson County Police, deputy sheriffs and even a former Parole Board Chair were there to convince the Parole Board to keep Guenthner incarcerated and give him the maximum deferment of 10 years. The entire Kentucky Parole Board was present to listen to the heartfelt pleas of the victim’s advocates. There was obvious resentment lingering over the last decision, when Guenthner was given only a five-year deferment and of the fact that Guenthner had gained some measure of recognition by participating in the “Shakespeare Behind Bars” documentary that had been recently released at the Sundance Film Festival.

A board member who declined to be identified reported that extreme personal pressure was placed on members not to support Guenthner’s release in spite of stacks of letters speaking of his rehabilitation. Two former police officers were chosen as the parole board members to interview and decide Guenthner’s fate at his third hearing. Afterward, a request by a board member to bring the case to a full board review and discussion was denied by the board chairman.

Guenthner will come up for another parole hearing in 2021.

The transformation in Guenthner has been amazing, say those who have known him from the beginning of his incarceration. At 6 feet 4 inches and 276 pounds, Guenthner entered prison angry and rule-breaking. As the years passed, he found a spiritual direction and became known within the prison as The Gentle Giant. Guenthner’s picture was featured in a May 20, 2015 theater review in LEO Weekly. He has been allowed to participate in outreach programs for area youths, encouraging them to take a different path than his.

Because of his strong personality and the visibility of his prison activities, Guenther receives attention from the staff and administration. His case is one of the first to come up when concerns about the parole process are mentioned. Wardens and staff members write letters in his support even though that is a rare and sometime frowned-upon, practice. His positive transformation is widely discussed, but the parole board and the governor’s office refuse to touch this high-profile case as it is bound to hit the media if he is released.

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Policy vs. practice

These three cases demonstrate the difficulties facing a criminal justice system that is rife with emotions and misunderstandings. The public does not have a good understanding of the underlying issues of punishment. Public opinion, rather than good criminal justice practices, often rules the procedures of parole. The weaknesses in the system are burdening our prisons, costing us millions and unbalancing the scales of justice.

The Kentucky Legislature made a good start in trying to fix the situation by the 2016 passage of HB 463, which pushed toward using evidence-based criteria for parole decisions. Programs, activities and behaviors that have been scientifically proven to demonstrate rehabilitation and to lessen recidivism are mandated to be considered in decision-making. To that same objective end, a risk assessment score is assigned to each person coming up for parole.

Unfortunately, passing a law and seeing it implemented properly are two different things. In the three cases discussed here, the objective instruments seem to have been by-passed and replaced by more subjective and emotional reactions by parole board members. Prescribed standard procedures for deferments were not always followed. Their cases are not isolated say other inmates.

A class-action suit against the Kentucky Parole Board was filed in Franklin Circuit Court in 2013 by a number of inmates housed in Kentucky prisons. Expected judgments have been delayed; discovery is still being received, but the case is still active. The inmates, represented by the Department of Public Advocacy, complain of arbitrary and deficient regulations that corrupt the parole process. In addition, they request procedural changes to address inconsistent and secretive parole procedures and to remedy insufficient record keeping. This article reflects most of their complaints.

Repeated email and phone messages requesting comment and an interview with the current Parole Board chair have been unanswered. Appeals for interviews at many levels were refused. The pressure and demands as a result of the suit appear to have the administrators on edge.

Solutions

One of the best solutions for the state’s current financial burden can be found in the reduction of the prison population. There are ways to lessen the current weaknesses in the parole system as well. The answers lie with the legislature or the governor.

In 2009, Michigan was faced with a similar situation. The governor expanded the parole board. She ordered the expanded board to review the files of long-incarcerated inmates who had served their minimum sentences, but who, like Stark, Cobb and Guenthner, were continually refused parole in spite of favorable ratings on all objective guidelines specified by parole procedures. As in the Kentucky cases, the only reason given for refusal of release was the seriousness of the crime — a condition that could never be changed.

Michigan released 820 people to parole who were serving time for murder or manslaughter.

Detailed follow-up studies for the next three years indicated that increasing the number of parolees with past violent offenses did not increase the re-offense rate and it saved millions of dollars. They found the category of inmates with violent offenses had almost a non-existent recidivism rate for further violence at .02 percent. Similar statistics were found in California where Nancy Mullane tracked freed convicted murderers for a 20-year period.

Gov. Bevin could, of course, mandate a similar action here in Kentucky. That would take a great deal of political courage.

There are ways to improve the parole system so that it is more professionalized and consistent. The legislature holds the key to that change.

Two people contacted for this story, but who asked to stay anonymous, suggested that Kentucky should follow the direction of other states and have the parole board placed under the auspices of the Department of Corrections, or DOC. The current structure is awkward. The parole board is officially under the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet but only receives organizational services from them. The DOC provides prisoner information to the parole board for their hearings, but there is little coordination, conversation or planning for actions that affect them both. The parole board is chosen by the governor and answers to him, which lets political pressures bleed into what is supposed to be an objective process.

Bringing the parole board into the Department of Corrections would enhance the process that is now called unpredictable and uneven by many. It would also better protect the board members who must make difficult, and sometimes unpopular, decisions. If a paroled inmate reoffends in spite of the board’s best judgment, the members’ jobs must be protected. In some other states, board members have been fired and even been personally sued for their decisions. It could happen here.

The Legislature would have to make the restructuring happen.

Our Responsibility

As citizens, we have responsibilities as well. We must think through the complex issue of crime and punishment that we’d prefer to ignore. Philosophically, we must ask if people are capable of change and how that change occurs. Economically, we need to ask if we can afford our growing prison population. Can we continue to spend half a billion dollars a year to lock people up?

And emotionally, we need to decide whether the concept of retribution or that of second chances speaks most closely to us. We must think through those questions before blindly voting for politicians who emptily speak to being “tough on crime,” rather than suggesting nuanced solutions to our social problems.

Mostly, we need to use common sense. We are spending millions of dollars to lock up people who have already paid for their crimes with decades behind bars. We know studies conclude that prisoners with certain violent offenses are extremely low risks for reoffending. We know our state has no room left to house active, unrepentant criminals who need to be locked up and no money to pay for mental health treatments or other programs of rehabilitation. So why are we wasting our badly needed money this way? We are keeping men and women removed from society long after they have been punished and learned their hard lessons. We are cheating ourselves with loss of tax-payer income and hard workers. We are hurting ourselves at every turn.

Releasing men and women who have done much damage to others does not cheapen the memory of their victims. Instead, maybe it says good can still come from the lost or damaged lives through the actions of those who now have the obligation to pay back to society for the harm they have done. •

Behind the story

Gaye D. Holman is a retired professor of sociology at Jefferson Community and Technical College where she coordinated the college program in all the Louisville-area state correctional facilities. She is the author of “Decades Behind Bars: A Twenty-Year Conversation with Men in America’s Prisons” (McFarland & Co, 2017). Research for this story and her book included a 20-year study following 50 men in Kentucky prisons. She has known the men featured here for over two decades. Additional research included personal interviews within the prison, letter exchanges, news articles, court records, materials available through open records laws and off-the-record conversations.


How it works? ‘it’s a crapshoot’

by Gaye D. Holman

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.

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.”


The power of the victim

by Gaye D. Holman

Victim impact statements are allowed in Kentucky whenever an inmate is considered for parole. The victims, or others affected by the crime, can write letters and appear in person to speak with the parole board members making the decision about the proposed release. Most victims talk about the negative impacts of the crime on their lives and usually ask passionately that the prisoner not be released on parole. Occasionally, victims speak of forgiveness and ask for the release of the inmate.

On the other hand, people supporting the release of the inmate cannot speak directly to parole board members. Supporters can only send letters or sit silently at the hearings with prior permission. A former parole board member admitted to me that they don’t always read the letters of support, claiming they say the same thing, “My son Johnny is a nice boy.”

Not all states operate like Kentucky. In some states no impact statements for or against release are accepted in person — only letters and objective signs of rehabilitation are considered. In other states, victims can be heard at the first parole hearing — not later ones.

In Kentucky, staff members who know and supervise the inmates are not allowed to speak or write on their behalf, even though they are the ones who know best about their supposed rehabilitation. There is a fear that payoffs and deals between staff and inmate might muddy the process.

Victim impact statements seem to be here to stay.

In both Jerry Guenthner’s and Hal Cobb’s cases, there are vocal victims’ spokespeople arguing against their release. I talked with Pete McCartney, a retired homicide detective, about the practice of the police fighting against Guenthner’s release. Somewhat familiar with the case, he stated they definitely should have a right to show up, and he tried to explain the emotional connection police have with each other. Officers are always in it together, he explained, pulling up his sleeve to show me the bracelet he still wears in honor of a fallen brother. As he spoke, his words echoed the feeling of camaraderie that is shared by people in the law enforcement and military families.

I asked him if it was fair that the police group could influence a continued incarceration, whereas someone with a similar crime with no one showing up might be released.

“No, it’s not fair. The fair is in August,” he replied.

A changed system is needed for fairness, but realistically the power of victims is not going to change, he said. He pointed to increasing sympathies for victims as is seen in the proposed Marsy’s Law, which will change our state constitution if passed. This man insists police should have a right to object, but he agrees there should be an objective system to ensure that decision-making is even and wise, regardless of their objections and judgments about rehabilitation.

Col. Kevin Higdon, chief of the Shively Police Department, declined comment. Before he became chief, the Shively department was very active in opposing Guenthner’s release. In an email, he said, “I think it would be inappropriate for me to make comments on a case or the incarceration of individuals whom I never met. Comments on the rehabilitation process is something I have no knowledge of. It wouldn’t be fair to anyone involved with this case, or the families of either person, for me to make a comment.”

The director of the Parole Board’s Victim Advocacy Department did not respond to repeated requests for input.

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