Pardon and Parole board members take their job seriously

Monday, March 7th 2005, 6:08 am
By: News On 6

McALESTER, Okla. (AP) The board room sounds a bit like gunfire. ``No.'' ``SAT.'' ``SAT.'' ``SAT and SAT", the five voices blast the words like bullets when voting, but the decision takes much longer.

``Every one of us spend 100 hours or more looking at the information we have available,'' said Richard L. Dugger, a member of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board. ``That way, by the time we actually get to a meeting, each of us has a pretty good idea of the case and know pretty much how we're going to vote.''

And although the votes are cast with the rapidity of machine-gun fire, the decisions reached are never easy, according to Pardon and Parole Board members.

``It can get kind of hard sometimes,'' chairman James Brown confessed. ``You've got to consider what is best overall. You've got to consider what's best for the inmate, the victim, the families of the inmate and the victim and society overall.''

But before they can make those considerations, the board members must have some familiarity with the cases they'll be deciding. And that's not easy.

Every month, several weeks before scheduled Pardon and Parole Board meetings, each member receives large packets of information about the individual cases. Some of the information comes as computer disks supplied by the state Pardon and Parole staff, such as recommendations from Pardon and Parole investigators. Other information comes as letters sent by people concerned with individual cases, whether those people are inmates' families, victims' families, police officers, district attorneys, defense attorneys or the inmates themselves. The mail alone can sometimes seem almost overwhelming, Brown said.

``I'm going to have to get a bigger mailbox,'' member Susan Loving said during a recent meeting in McAlester. ``They send so much stuff, it just doesn't all fit.''

The amount of mail increases before clemency hearings, when board members must decide if to recommend clemency for someone scheduled to be executed. That's when board members are inundated with mail from members of outside groups, such as Amnesty International, urging them to spare a convicted killer's life.

``We get a lot of information,'' Dugger said. ``I think we're pretty good about going over everything carefully, especially in clemency cases.''

Investigators send board members summaries of individual cases, as well as information about an inmate's conduct in prison.

``We also get the district attorney's version of what happened and the inmate's version,'' Dugger said. ``Sometimes the inmates express remorse and acknowledge they messed up, sometimes they don't.''

Does that make a difference?

``It can, but we have a lot of other things to consider as well.''

Some of those things include substance abuse treatment programs, shortened to SAT when board members bark out their votes, an inmate's education level, criminal history and behavior in prison. An inmate who has the opportunity to get a General Equivalency Diploma but refuses is less likely to receive parole than one who obtains a GED. Inmates with more education are less likely to commit crimes than those with less, according to corrections and education officials.

Board members receive information on more than 700 cases each month.

The five-member board meets at a different correctional facility each month. During the meetings, board members frequently hear from victims' witness coordinators, family members of both the inmate and the crime victim, as well as from attorneys arguing for or against an inmate's release.

At one recent meeting in McAlester, an inmate's ex-wife tearfully asked the board to deny him parole.

``He tried to kill me after getting involved with drugs,'' she said. ``He's a model prisoner, but when he gets out he turns into a different person.''

Another person pleaded for an inmate's release. Dugger scanned his laptop computer, turned and said, ``In looking at his record, I see he's gotten 17 felony convictions and this is the fourth time he's been to prison. What makes you think he's changed?''

Board members don't serve to try to keep people in prison, Dugger said later, ``but we have to do what's best for everyone concerned. If we turn someone out and he commits another crime, we haven't served anyone properly.''

Some inmates receive what is called a ``jacket review.'' In those cases, information about the inmates is looked at without the inmate personally appearing before the board.

For inmates who have been convicted of violent crimes, the jacket review is just part of a two-stage parole process.

``Stage I is where we decide whether an inmate is allowed to go on to Stage II,'' Loving said. ``There's no guarantee that just because someone gets past Stage I they'll get past Stage II.''

Often, inmates or their representatives appear before the board. In February, board members heard from 130 inmates during the regular parole hearing, but they had far more cases than that to consider. There was also a clemency hearing, a medical docket and a pardon docket.

During a clemency hearing, board members decide whether to recommend clemency for a person convicted of murder. If clemency is recommended, the case goes to the governor for a final decision. If not, there is no chance of clemency.

The same is true for other board actions. If board members feel an inmate should be paroled, it is still up to the governor to make the final decision. It usually takes two months from the time the board recommends parole until the time the governor receives the recommendation, then several more months before the governor makes a decision.

``We don't want to give anyone false hope,'' said Dugger, an Oklahoma City attorney who served as district attorney for the state's second judicial district. ``If someone's ready to get out, we want to get them out. If not, we want to recommend the things that will get them ready.''