Last month, the Board of Pardons and Paroles essentially cancelled hundreds of inmate parole hearings as legislative changes either made them discretionary or unnecessary.
The Paroles and Pardons Board recently implemented reforms that have contributed to a spike in the state’s population of prison inmates. The changes were enacted after the 2007 Cheshire murders, which were committed by two men on parole.
In the process, inmate parole hearings have slowed while the board has begun using a new risk-based decision-making structure. An Office of Policy and Management report released Tuesday indicated the state was housing 17,142 inmates in its prison system in July. The new report details a continuation of a months-long trend of inmate numbers increasing during a period of expected decline. OPM’s February projections had anticipated nearly 600 fewer inmates.
Tuesday’s report cites a decline in the number of inmates being released on parole and it also highlights a spike in the number of canceled parole hearings.
The board canceled hearings for 262 cases in July. That’s more hearings than the board had canceled in the preceding 20 months combined.
Erika Tindill, chairperson of the Pardons and Paroles Board, said Wednesday there are several reasons for the board to close interest on an inmate’s case. For instance, the agency may cancel a hearing if the Correction Department places that offender in a halfway home. But she said the recent jump has predominantly been a result of legislative actions from the past year that have impacted the board’s work.
This year, the legislature passed a broad piece of gun control legislation that included a provision stating that inmates convicted of certain crimes will not be permitted to leave prison prior to serving at least 85 percent of their sentences. The section was included in the bill as a result of Republican lawmakers’ concerns that violent inmates may be released early under a program that allows offenders to earn credits for participating in certain prison programs.
As a result of the new law, offenders included in this category will not see their parole eligibility dates move because of the credits. And because those inmates are typically released soon after they reach 85 percent of their sentence, it no longer makes sense for the parole board to hold hearings on their cases.
Tindill said a lot of preparation and work goes into the Board of Pardons and Paroles’ examination of a case and their determination of the risk posed by the offender. And that work costs money.
“We will not be giving them a hearing because it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to put together all the resources for a hearing,” if their time in prison will be over soon, she said.
The legislature passed another change as a small part of a 500-page bill implementing the state budget. The change gave the parole board discretion to pass on holding a hearing for a parole-eligible inmate if it feels the offender presents too much of a risk to release on parole.
Prior to the legislation, the board was required to hold hearings for offenders when they had served a certain percentage of their sentence. For some inmates, that was 75 percent of their term, minus any earned credits. For others it was 85 percent of their sentence.
Now the board has discretion to skip the hearings. It is only required to provide a written explanation of why it made that decision. Tindill said the change helps the board prioritize cases.
“Let me do the assessment and figure out who’s going to get a hearing. Some people, we had to process their cases but there was no way [parole would be granted] because they were too risky,” she said.
Michael Lawlor, OPM’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy, said the legislation should help the board work through a backlog of cases contributing to the higher-than-expected prison population.
“They just want to focus on the inmates that have a reasonably good chance of being released on parole,” Lawlor said. “Non-violent offenders are not even getting hearings because they’re backlogged over there.”
Although inmates are frequently grouped into categories based on their primary convictions and whether they can be released at 50 percent or 85 percent of their prison sentences, Tindill said those labels are often not an accurate reflection of the risk posed by a given offender.
“It has nothing to do with how risky you are, how violent you are, or whether people should be scared if you come back to their neighborhood,” she said.
Tindill acknowledges that the parole board has slowed its work in recent months, but she says the agency’s shift to risk analysis of individual offenders is a good thing. She said parole is only one of many ways an inmate may leave prison and statewide inmate populations do not hinge entirely on the actions of the board.
In its report, the Office of Policy and Management said that it expects the prison population to remain elevated for some time.
“No quick fixes are available to reverse this current spike in the prison population. Although the [Department of Correction] and BoPP have been meeting regularly to discuss ways to ameliorate the situation, it appears unlikely that the prison population will decline to projected levels any time soon,” the report read.