Prisoners finding chances at parole have grown slim

From Corporate Media

by Jessica Alaimo

Ohio longest-serving prisoners are finding it increasingly difficult to get out on parole, an opportunity not even afforded most of those sent to prison since 1996.

In 2011, just 7 percent of the 1,918 inmates getting release consideration hearings were paroled. This compares to 20 percent of the 2,121 inmates getting hearings the previous year. In years before that, the number was closer to 50 percent.

The drop in release rates comes as Ohio officials strive to decrease the prison population despite the 1996 sentencing law which ended parole for any future sentence.

Columbus defense attorney Barry Wilford said these are the toughest times he’s known to be an inmate facing the board, because the board has gotten tougher. Wilford is also the Public Policy Director for the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

But JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said that after 16 years all the inmates likely to be paroled have been released already, leaving behind 3,200 of the state’s worst offenders to cycle through the process again and again.

Ohio’s prisoners are generally referred to in two groups: “old law” and “new law.” The no-longer-new law enacted in 1996 made the 20-to-40 year sentence a thing of the past.

Since 1996, judges have given most offenders exact sentences, meaning the only hearing they get is upon release when the board decides if they need post-release control or not. The only exception is for the most serious offenders — those committing murder and some sex offenses. There are 3,000 people in Ohio’s prisons that meet this criteria.

“Those remaining parole-eligible inmates have not been released either because they have committed crimes that are uncommon and of a very serious nature that do not conform to general risk patterns, or they have demonstrated themselves as chronic parole violators,” Smith said in an email.

However Wilford and Ken Spiert, chief counsel in the legal division of the Office of the Ohio Public Defender, believe the parole board has gotten more strict over the years, keeping some people behind bars who once would have been granted a release.

“I’ve been doing this work for 16 years. Most of the work I’ve done is representing offenders in the parole system, and these are the toughest times I’ve ever known,” Wilford said.

Spiert said the board changed its procedures in 2010, doing away with guidelines that helped them weigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances in each case. Instead, the board is instructed to use its discretion.

The department’s website states:

“Given the dramatic transformation of Ohio’s parole-eligible population … use of the Manual is no longer practical or effective. The Board will continue to give every inmate meaningful consideration for parole, and exercise its discretionary releasing authority by utilizing the (Ohio law).”

However, releases declined significantly when they stopped using the manual.

“That explanation doesn’t seem satisfactory for me,” Spiert said. “(Now) we don’t know what kind of rationale they’re using to reach the decisions that they’re reaching.”

Wilford said he’s concerned that most parole decisions are unanimous.

“We’re talking about lock-step decision-making, by and large,” he said.

Wilford said the department’s argument that only the worst offenders are left is an easy one to make, but often his clients do not get a good reason for why they get denied.

“Somewhere between half and two-thirds of the clients I had could have been released without any significant risk to the public,” Wilford said.

Jeff Gamso, former legal director of the ACLU of Ohio, questions the line of thinking of the parole board. The parole board must ask whether the offender is ready to re-enter society — not whether they need more punishment.

“At the point where the person is first eligible for parole, that’s sufficient punishment,” Gamso said. “After that, it’s ‘What does society need? Do we need to be protected from this guy?’ ”