The following article is reposted with permission from Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform - New Hampshire. Click here to go to website. The article can be read in its entirety by clicking on the link below.
Parole Board Changing for the Better
By Chris Dornin April 29, 2013
Donna Sytek, the former New Hampshire House speaker, has hit the ground running as the new chair of the Parole Board. She is well qualified for this thankless hot seat, having served as House Criminal Justice Committee chair, State GOP chair, head of the Judicial Conduct Committee and chair of the Vesta Roy Excellence in Public Service Series. Her past and current gigs as a board member include Catholic Charities, NH Charitable Foundation, NH Public Television, Leadership New Hampshire and the NH Center for Public Policy Studies. In short, she has seen State House politics, the influential nonprofit sector and the crime beat from just about every angle.
The board that says who leaves prison and who stays met for a recent all-day planning workshop with a national expert on parole, prison counseling, risk assessment, treatment and prison management. Catherine McVey consults for the Council of State Governments Justice Center helping policy makers adopt the best practices in recidivism prevention. She is meeting monthly with the members of the Parole Board to develop evidence-based guidelines for parole decisions.
Her funding here comes through a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. The group Sytek has apparently set out to remake had an amazing conversation the other day with McVey, all the more astonishing because the public got to hear it. These same partners helped New Hampshire draft and pass a major and progressive crime law in 2010. More on that shortly.
What the science of parole might look like
Parole Board members are looking at the risk factors that correlate with either recidivism or social integration. McVey said some never change: the person’s gender, their age when they did their first crime, the rest of their rap sheet, their history of violence and victimization, their family background, their record in previous incarcerations.
Other factors can evolve: a prisoner’s attitude toward crime and society, their education level, their support from family and friends, the stability of their work and living situations on the outside, their completion of programs to help them succeed. The board is trying to standardize its parole decisions against written criteria based on science. It will be a gradual process, but it will be transparent.
Crafting some careful standards in the matter and using the latest risk assessment instruments could buffer the appointed board against future firestorms over their inevitable mistakes. Or their perceived mistakes. It’s not fun deciding who leaves prison. Republican George Bush Sr. vilified Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race for a law allowing murderer Willie Horton, a black man, leave prison on a weekend furlough to kidnap a couple, stab the man and rape the women. The fear card works in politics.
The hard politics of parole boards
Two years ago Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts remembered that local lesson. He preemptively forced five Massachusetts Parole Board members to resign for voting to parole a convicted lifer, Dominic Cinelli, who went on to kill Policeman John Maguire during the robbery of a Kohl’s in Woburn. Thus Patrick still has a political future. Something resembling justice prevailed, depending on one’s definition of it. In my opinion, it was neither fair, calm nor disinterested.
Two decades ago Sytek rode a similar parole-related New Hampshire backlash against the murderer Ed Coolidge to enact a sweeping truth-in-sentencing law. It increased every future minimum sentence by two thirds. In the old days inmates could reduce their minimum bid by 12.5 days per month simply through good behavior. Sytek was the prime mover behind scrapping good time and requiring that the full minimum sentence be served. What would have been a six-year sentence after applying good time under the old law became a decade.