Friday, August 17, 2012

Prison Costs and Paroles | Casey's Last Word

We received a rare double dose of good news from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles this week.

They proclaimed that the number of inmates paroled last year was up and the number whose parole was revoked was down.

The approval rate of those applying was 31.05 percent, nearly one of three.

That was a slight increase from a year ago, but up from just one in four 10 years ago.

That’s good news for the strapped state treasury.

When I think of parole boards, I think of Morgan Freeman in “The Shawshank Redemption.”

“Your files say you served 40 years of a life sentence," an official says. "You feel you’ve been rehabilitated?”

“Rehabilitated? Well now let me see, you know I don’t have any idea what that means. Am I sorry for what I did?” Freeman's character answers.

“Well are you?”

“I look back on the way I was then, a young stupid kid who committed that terrible crime.” He says he wishes he could talk sense into that kid, but he can’t. The kid is long gone and all that is left is “this old man.”

He closes by insolently telling the chairman, “So you go on and stamp your form sonny and stop wasting my time.”

To his surprise, the chairman stamps the form “approved.”

But that’s in the movies. The way it actually works in Texas is far different.

In the vast majority of cases, the parole board members and commissioners who make the decisions almost never meet the inmate.

In the process, they don’t even work with each other.

Take Juanita Gonzalez in San Antonio.

She goes to her office here and faces a relentless stack of files.

As a matter of policy, if a victim or family of a victim asks to address her, it’s the board’s policy that they get a hearing.

But if the inmate asks, it is up to each commissioner.

The caseload alone is enough to make regular sessions such as that in “The Shawshank Redemption” impractical.

Gonzalez decided on 10,397 cases last fiscal year, and four of her 21 colleagues had more.

She stamps the file “approved” or “denied” in each case and forwards it to a second commissioner who may be in another part of the state.

That commissioner reviews the file without discussing it with Gonzalez.

Only if he or she disagrees with her decision is the file forwarded to a third commissioner to break the tie.

There are no discussions or deliberations. And given the caseload, the average file can’t receive more than a few minutes of deliberation.

This is the cold, real world, with decisions made in private isolation based on a secret file. It would not make for good cinema.

So why is the board becoming more generous with its paroles? Officials cite a number of factors.

One is an assessment system that scores inmates based on factors ranging from the severity of the crime and the age at which the inmate was first incarcerated to his disciplinary record in prison and whether he earned a degree or acquired work skills.

Another factor, says a board spokesman, is a move by the Legislature to fund outside treatment and rehabilitation programs instead of building more prisons.

Releasing probationers to these programs feels safer than dumping them on the street.

But lawyers who have specialized for a long time in representing prisoners before the parole board are skeptical.

They cite another factor that the board never admits.

Bill Habern of Huntsville sums it up succinctly: “The cost of it all has caught up with them.”

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