By Phil Drake | Montana Watchdog
HELENA – The Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, its rules, philosophies and usefulness are in need of review, state lawmakers say.
The Law and Justice Interim Committee on Friday approved a resolution asking for the review, which was requested by state Sen. Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell.
“There’s too many complaints,” he told Montana Watchdog during a break in the Law and Justice Interim Committee meeting. “Where there’s smoke there’s fire someplace.”
He said if the board were eliminated, inmates would serve their full sentence and be released. He said it would be one more factor a judge would take into consideration when passing sentence.
The board approved the resolution, LC0325, with an 8-2 vote. The matter awaits Legislative approval in 2013.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Rep. Michael Menahan, D-Helena, said before casting one of the two dissenting votes. He said as the system stands now, inmates are eligible for parole after serving one-quarter of their sentencing.
Committee member Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, a former parole board chairman, said eliminating parole could lead to more overcrowding in prisons “and you’d have no monetary savings.”
He and Menahan both said the board serves as a buffer between the public and potential parolees.
“The parole board does a great job and does a job that has to be done,” Peterson said. “I don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t have a parole board.”
Rep. Margaret MacDonald, D-Billings, said the resolution did not foreclose on the board but did give “some very much needed oversight for the system. I think these questions are important.”
Murphy said the resolution did not call for elimination of the board, but just for a broad-based review.
The study, which is to be completed by Sept. 15, 2014, must include comments by law enforcement, the Department of Corrections, judges and community service providers. The resolution notes that 15 states have eliminated their parole boards, but it’s the first time recently that it’s been considered in Montana.
The resolution also notes it costs nearly $90 a day to incarcerate an offender but $5 to supervise an offender on parole. And according to the 2011 biennial report of the Board of Pardons and Parole, 72 percent of the correctional population is eligible for parole, but 60 percent are denied on their first appearance before the board.
Data show that from fiscal year 2006-2010 the Board of Pardons and Parole granted parole in 57 percent of the cases where inmates were interviewed.
Of 5,575 cases, the board approved parole for 3,189 offenders. The board interviewed an average of 1,115 offenders a year from FY 2006-2010 and approved parole for an average of 638 inmates each year and denied parole for an average of 477 offenders during that same time period.
Also, according to the report, the typical Montana inmate spends 43 months in prison before being granted parole.
Board members are paid $75 per day for each day they do board business and are reimbursed for expenses. The total reimbursement budget is about $40,425.00 a year. The entire budget for the board is about $748,503 for the current fiscal year and includes salaries for 10 employees.
At the June 22 Law and Justice committee meeting, Parole and Pardons Board Chairman Michael E. McKee said he had been following the committee for several months and heard allegations made by the public against the board and Department of Corrections.
McKee did not specify the allegations, but Law and Justice Committee meetings typically feature family members and friends of inmates claiming people are being denied parole for the wrong reasons or that inmates being forced by the parole board to complete programs not required by the courts.
“I will answer (that) a good part of what I have heard can be summed up, and I will spell it, C-R-A double P,” McKee said.
He said parole board members are not only volunteers appointed by the governor, they are also “people who actually have the ability to grasp and understand what goes on in the system based on their education and background.”
He said the board’s role is to reintegrate people back into the community as early as possible in the hopes they will become law abiding, productive taxpaying citizens.
“That’s our role,” he said. “It’s not to be a repressive entity to keep people in. For crying out loud, we know as individual taxpayers the cost of maintaining facilities and the DOC budget. It’s huge.
“We are trying to move people through the system … but public safety is always and always will be No. 1.”