BOV edition #17 Parole explained

Doyle's parole chief defends tough tack on releases pg6

This was in the Milwaukee Journal several years ago but still provides good primer for understanding issues of “Old Law Prisoners.”

By Jason Shepard

Last summer, Gov. Jim Doyle appointed Alfonso Graham as chair­man of the state's Parole Commission. Soon after, the scheduled parole of many Wisconsin prisoners was revoked.

"There is great frustration throughout the prison system about Al Graham's reversals," says Van den Bosch, a prisoners-rights advo­cate who runs the Prisoner Action Coalition from his home in Montfort, west of Dodgeville. "A lot of these guys are giving up hope that they have any real chance at parole, and families are becoming more and more angry at the system."

Inmate Aaron Greer writes that a commissioner determined last summer that he deserved release, 16 years after he was con­victed of first-degree sexual assault and bur­glary. Greer says he spent years in prison rehabilitation programs, and his family pre­pared a detailed plan to support his reintegration into society Yet Graham, he asserts, overruled his release "without any reasons behind his decision whatsoever."

DeMara Cumby, now serving a 28-year sen­tence for armed robbery, says he was slated to be released last August after a com­missioner recommended his parole. But after returning from a work-release pro­gram, Cumby says he was locked up, trans­ferred, and told Graham had revoked his parole grant and instead ordered him to serve another two years before being reconsidered.

"I haven't had any infractions," Cumby writes. "On the contrary. I've shown positive adjustment over many years, which is sup­posed to be the determining factor."

Letters from other inmates, sent to Van den Bosch and Isthmus over the past year, tell similar stories. Stricter laws, sterner judges and statutory changes like "truth in sentencing" have led to longer state prison sentences across all classes of crimes. This has spiked prison populations and driven corrections spending to nearly $1.1 billion a year. An Isthmus analysis of data from the Department of Corrections confirms what Van den Bosch and state inmates are saying: The tough-on-crime mantra has also thrust itself dramatically into the parole system.

During the first six months of Graham's tenure, the parole-grant rate dropped significantly from what it had been under Graham's predecessor, Lenard Wells. From June 2006 to November 2006, Graham granted parole in 12.5% of possible cases, down from 17.2% from December 2005 through May 2006, when Wells was in charge. In all, of the 4,705 inmates up for parole in 2006, 688 were grant­ed release.

Now more inmates are being denied parole. This increases costs to taxpay­ers — the current annual average in Wisconsin is $29,600 per inmate — while reducing the amount of time that newly-released prisoners are under the watch of parole agents.

For most of the 20th century, parole was a corrections tool used to motivate criminals to "earn" release from prison by bettering themselves through good behavior, rehabilitation programs and education. It also allowed the system to cor­rect for inappropriately harsh judges.

In the 1990s, parole came under attack from politicians who played to fears that criminals were getting released from prison without sufficient punishment, then going on to commit more crimes.

Wisconsin eliminated parole in 2000 as part of one of the nation's harshest overhauls in criminal-justice sentencing. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel projected the move would cost taxpayers $1.8 billion in new spending for inmates admitted through 2025.

At the end of 1999, 94% of Wisconsin's adult prison population had a set parole-eli­gibility date. Now just 4,812 inmates, or 22% of the total population, remain sentenced under the "old law." This means they are eligible for discretionary parole after serving 25% of their sentence, and must be released after serving two-thirds of the sentence.

(Inmates sentenced after Dec. 31, 1999 nev­er see a parole commissioner. Many serve every day of their sentences, although some inmates convicted "of less-serious crimes” are able to petition judges for release after serving three-quarters of their sentence.)

An inmate eligible for parole is granted a hearing before one of five parole commissioners. This person recom­mends or denies parole and sets the next eligi­bility date. Crime victims are allowed to offer outside information; inmates' families, lawyers and advocates are not.

Commissioners weigh several factors: whether the inmate has served "sufficient time for punishment"; shown signs of positive improvement based on treatment and education programs; developed a viable plan for success upon release; and presents an "acceptably reduced level of risk" to the pub­lic.

Graham has overseen the hiring of two of the five commissioners, Danielle LaCost and David White, both in August 2006. LaCost has worked in corrections since 1995, White since 1978. The three other commis­sioners, in order of seniority, are Jayne Hackbarth, a 20-year DOC veteran who was appointed in 1999; Steven Landreman, employed by DOC for 14 years and appoint­ed in 2001; and James Hart, a 32-year DOC employee appointed in 2002.

The chairman of the parole board has the sole authority to accept, reject or modi­fy a decision from a commissioner. (Pg 7)

His deci­sion is final.

Like his predecessor, Al Graham is an African American former Milwaukee police official. In addition to his Milwaukee pen­sion from his days as assistant police chief, Graham has collected a paycheck over the past decade from the state Department of Justice, most recently by working in a unit called the Cannabis Eradication and Sup­pression Effort.

Graham says he calls ' he sees 'em, but concedes that it's a difficult post "I have that hard job of saying, 'No, today we're not going to let this lifer out because of what he's done, based on the facts before me, based on the witnesses

that may be out there protesting, based on the victims, based on the district attorneys and judges."'

This year alone, Graham guesses he's had about 20 cases of recommended releases for inmates convicted of homicide. He estimates he's overturned about 25% of them. "Before I put my signature releasing a person who's been sentenced to life, I'm going to take a hard look at that."

Sometimes, Graham gets intimately involved in the board's decisions. When it came time to release a Marinette County man convicted of attempted homicide 22 years earlier, Graham received a letter from the victim, a man in his 60s who is still dis­abled from the attack. The man was fearful for his life, and said he'd move rather than live in the same town as his released attack-

"Here's a guy who expressed a legitimate concern," Graham says. "He said he's a tax-paying citizen whose safety is being put at risk because of my decision."

And so Graham called the local district attorney, police chief and the man's parole officer to talk about the release, which he granted.

"Do I worry about that one case? Only because it was the first I had where I could not justify in my mind keeping this person any longer. I fight the urge to call the victim and say, 'How are you doing1.'"' But Graham admits to calling the police chief after the release to make sure there hadn't been any problems.

"There are no easy cases," Graham says. "In every case, there are families out there on all sides. There are prosecutors and judges and police officers. There are community organizations. And there's the public, whose safety to me is always the most important fac­tor."

He continues: "Are there some who I could have released who may have gone on to do well? There's a chance. It's a question of the law of averages, reducing the risk, and hoping that community and family support is out there and the inmate is released saying I'm going to do the best I can. If I erred, it was on the side of public safety If I had to go right back to day one, I would do everything the exact same way"

At an April public hearing, dozens of peo­ple testified against Graham's nomination based on his rejections of parole grants. The complaints received scant media attention, with the notable exception of Wisconsin Pub­lic Radio's Gil Halstead.

Following the hearing, lawmakers sought assurances from Graham that he and his staff would work harder to communicate with pris­oners, their families and advocacy groups. Taylor's committee also requested a study of risk-assessment tools used in other states that could reduce the needier discretionary deci­sion-making. (The report was slated for release in July, but Graham says it's not yet ready)

Another concern is the lack of available programs that inmates must complete to be eligible for parole. Some of the programs aren't offered where the prisoners are housed, forcing them to seek transfers to other facili­ties if they have any chance of winning release. Graham admits this is a burden and says it's "a fair concern" that inmates are being denied parole because they haven't com­pleted programming that's not offered at their facility

Van den Bosch worries that postponing parole can undercut an inmate's chances for success upon release. It's yet another exam­ple, he says, of politicians being more tough than smart on crime A smart approach would recognize the importance of rehabilitating criminals, giving them incentives, training and the opportunity to lead productive lives.

"No matter how long you extend some­one's time in prison, you're not automatical­ly going to have a better citizen when he comes out if you don't provide the skills and programs needed," Van den Bosch says. "The costs to society are much greater when you have people who get out and are unable to function."

Between 1987 and 2007, Wisconsin actually cut its support for higher education by 6%. Only 6 states reduced investment in higher education by more. During the same period, Wisconsin increased corrections spending by 251%, 8th national highest, despite an overall declining crime rate. (see chart of all states: from NASBO , National Ass. of State Budget Officers)