Years after a conviction, prisoners still face the same scrutiny at parole board hearings they did during their jury trial — when facing prosecutors, crime victims or the victim’s family.
Statements by prosecutors, victims of crime and their family members at a Board of Parole Hearing (BPH) could mean a parole denial for a rehabilitated person, according to a Powell (Wyoming) Tribune Op-Ed by Ronald Fraser published Feb. 11, 2021.
“To what extent will parole boards allow victim influence to override the concerns for the inmate?” asked Kathryn Morgan and Brent L. Smith in a 2005 article in Criminology & Public Policy quoted by Fraser. “Is it fair to further punish an inmate who presents a low risk of recidivism for future criminal behavior because victims show up at a hearing to protest the release?”
The purpose of a parole hearing is to determine an incarcerated person’s current readiness for release.
(It) should not be contaminated by outdated information that was the basis for the underlying conviction or plea, said the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) in a 2018 study, reported Fraser, who writes for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington, D.C.-based civil liberties organization.
“Crime survivors have little evidence as to whether an individual has changed, having not seen them for years,” the study added.
Parole board hearings can be a re-traumatizing event for victims and family members, and their testimony can also undo a prisoner’s remorse and rehabilitative efforts.
“Dragging the victim and their families into parole board hearings is akin to re-traumatizing them,” said a San Quentin resident who wished to remain anonymous due to an upcoming board hearing. “And what purpose does it serve to have them there 15-20-25-years after the crime occurred? They haven’t been a part of my rehabilitative process.
“They don’t know the struggles I endured to reach a place of true remorse. So how can the state expect them to have a say in paroling me, to judge me today, if they [victim/family] have not gotten healing themselves?” the person added.
A victim’s testimony can include details of life-changing mental and emotional injuries
they suffered by the offender. A victim can also testify whether or not they support the incarcerated person’s release.
“The problem here is that victims’ testimony at parole hearings are largely irrelevant to the task at hand — an objective, fact-based assessment of the inmate’s future risk of criminal behavior,” said Fraser.
“I’m not saying they shouldn’t be a part of the process, but I believe that they should at least have gone through self-healing groups, because how can the state (BPH and district attorney) expect someone to come judge me after years of incarceration, if they have not healed themselves?” the San Quentin resident said.
Victims of crimes, however, have a right to be heard during and after a trial has been concluded, said the article.
“Nearly every jurisdiction in the United States, guarantees victims a constitutional and/or statutory right to be heard in connection with parole and other release-related proceedings,” said the National Crime Victim Law Institute at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., reported Fraser.
Sixteen states have abolished early release hearings. In the remaining 34, including New York, offenders receive “indeterminate” sentences ranging from a minimum term to a maximum term, the article reported.
In 2018, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) studied how state parole boards conduct their hearings. The report, “Grading State Parole Systems,” says parole boards “are in the business of giving every incarcerated person ample opportunity to earn release and to have a fair process for deciding whether to grant it to them,” said the article.
The system of allowing early release by hearing committee was first adopted in New York State in 1907 as reformers moved to shift from punishment to rehabilitation in state-run prisons. However, many California prisoners express concern in having to enter into a process that should be as simple as showing that they have changed.
“I feel, I think it’s scary, intimidating and fueled by absolute anxiety going in that board room. Especially for a person who doesn’t talk good in front of people,” said SQ resident John James. “If the stories I’ve heard were more about a fair hearing process and judgment was based on our own merits, I don’t believe it would be such a terrifying experience.”
The SQNews asked James how he viewed his future board appearance. James, who has yet to appear before a BPH committee, responded, “I’m expecting a three-year denial.”
James believes that because he targeted a gang member and instead killed an innocent bystander, the BPH and the victim’s family may not view his being incarcerated for 10 years as a long enough period for rehabilitation.