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The Parole Board Legislative Audit Results: In Human Words

04 February 2016 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

Utah's criminal justice system is fraught with subterfuge and injustice, from arrest and the judicial process to corrections and the actual sentencing/parole authority.Screen Shot 2016 02 01 at 9.09.01 AM

This is a guest blog post by Althea Sandoval (a local criminal justice reform advocate) and Phillip Leishman (a Utah State Prison inmate who is serving time for killing two people in 1997, when he was 18 years old). This blog post is adapated from remarks read at the January 11 Utah Prisoner Advocate Network meeting...several weeks before the official Legislative Audit of the Board of Pardons and Parole was released to the public.

True criminal justice reform in this state must address the deficiencies within our indeterminate sentencing method. Many states have abandoned the concept of indeterminate sentencing. The outstanding cost of maintaining such a futile system alone should compel our state representatives to take immediate action to abandon such a debacle.

Utah judges have been made effectively impotent when it comes to the sentences they actually intend for offenders convicted in their courts. There is no truth in sentencing, as among our judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, offenders or even crime victims themselves there is little understanding of what an offender's sentence will ultimately be...once he or she is turned over to the unregulated authority of the Board of Pardons and Parole.

Judges are the people most qualified to make decisions in matters of law, but our indeterminate sentencing system makes them virtually powerless over the length of sentences they themselves impose. We leave these complex decisions instead to be made by a jumbled group of unelected and appointed individuals, supported by hearing officers with vague qualifications and unknown biases.

Our indeterminate sentencing scheme has been deemed by higher courts to be statutorily valid (thus far, anyway). Many challenges to its legality, mainly expressed in complaints about the Parole Board, continue to flood the courts by desperate prisoners. These inmates are coping with a host of injustices, from plea bargains achieved via subterfuge and empty promises by prosecutors, to the natural life sentences meted out, more often than ever before, by the Parole Board.

There is no clarity of consequence for offenders under this system, nor closure for victims. It should be abandoned or at the very least drastically remodeled.

The model penal code has declared parole boards in general to be “failed institutions.” The document specifically states that “No one has documented one example…of a parole-release system that has performed reasonably well in discharging its goals.” (Beth Schwatrzapfel, The Marshall Project)

For decades Utah has maintained one of the worse records for recidivism. This tells us the Parole Board may be incapable of determining who is parole-ready, but they may also be unwilling to release prisoners who actually are ready to be paroled. This is more than likely due to social prejudices and political pressure associated with certain crimes, particularly violent offenses, even though evidence shows these types of offenders are actually less likely to recidivate.

If the tax payers were ininvestors and the Parole Board a corporation, the entire body and their policies would need to be overhauled before we went bankrupt! There are no means available through which the Board can be held to account for its failures to parole the right offenders from prison.

In fact, as substantiated by the recently released Legislative Audit, the board isn’t even required to document or explain in any comprehensible detail why it makes the decisions it makes. It appears insulated against legitimate scrutiny of its methods. HB 348 did very little, if anything, to rectify this.

This lack of oversight or regulation has engendered apathetic attitudes, cavalier conduct, and unscrupulous practices in the Parole Board as an agency. Board decisions appear to be made arbitrarily, with few evidence-based considerations. These decisions result in wide-ranging outcomes, so that inmates are kept in prison for much different lengths of time, but for the exact or similar crimes. The actual sentencing guidelines and even judge or prosecutorial recommendations are seemingly ignored.

Parole hearings have become less hearings than retrials and resentencings of offenders and their crimes. These hearings, despite their immense consequences, are done without legal representation. These are proceedings where reviews of parole suitability actually bleed into decisions about condeming an inmate to natural life in prison, DESPITE a court's prior ruling or an offender’s plea agreement.

If this state and our legislature are honestly invested in reforming our system of criminal justice we need to prioritize the following actions:

  1. Put a freeze on plea agreements being utilized by the courts unless the Parole Board agrees to be bound by any and all agreements or assurances made therein;
  2. Abandon our indeterminate sentencing scheme and put judicial power and authority back into the hands of our judges;
  3. Mandate absolute transparency regarding Parole Board processes and establish clear, consistent, and compulsory parole regulation; 
  4. Invest more resources into quality - not just qualified - correctional staffing, rehabilitation and educational programs for all types of prisoners; and
  5. Invest in state-of-the-art risk assessment software for parole.

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