For the past dozen years, Mississippi has been on a gradually evolving mission to reform its corrections system by incarcerating fewer offenders and more quickly releasing those it does lock up.
A big part of that trend is greater use of parole, a trend fueled by concerns over the high cost of prisons and their potential to turn fledgling nonviolent offenders into hardened criminals.
Lawmakers, after erring in the 1990s with a harsh truth-in-sentencing law that nearly mothballed parole, have enacted three major criminal justice reform bills — first in 2008, then in 2014 and now in 2021 — that make greater use of it.
In 2008, the state paroled only 656 inmates, accounting for less than 8% of those released from prison. By 2019, more than 5,104 inmates received parole, representing more than 63% of those released from prison.
It is estimated that the most recent legislative change, which took effect July 1, will make an additional 2,000 inmates eligible for parole who otherwise would have had to wait years longer to be considered.
The merits of parole are that it saves the public money while still providing a measure of protection, since the parolees remain under the supervision of the Department of Corrections. Such post-release supervision can also help the former inmate reintegrate into society. Plus there’s an incentive for the parolees to behave, since even minor transgressions can return them to prison.
A report released this past week by a legislative watchdog group raises significant concerns, however, about the body in charge of the parole process.
The Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review found a host of problems with the Parole Board, not only in how it carries out its statutory duties but with the members’ work ethic and integrity.
PEER looked at a sampling of 150 inmates who were supposed to come up for parole in 2019. At least a third of the time, the hearings were held either before they were supposed to occur or after.
The Parole Board also had been ignoring one of the 2014 reforms that provided for early release of some inmates without a hearing.
And, according to PEER, since 2009 the Parole Board has not been keeping the legally required written minutes of its hearings, all of which are held behind closed doors.
Equally troubling are the report’s findings of how board members may be milking their gubernatorially appointed jobs.
PEER agreed with an earlier state auditor’s finding that some board members had been improperly reimbursed for commuting to Jackson to work. One board member, who lives in Meridian, received more than $20,000 in mileage reimbursements in a year’s time, according to PEER. Another, who lives in Poplarville, collected almost $6,800 in four months.
The board members, all of whom are supposed to be full-time state employees, may be goofing off as well.
During one week last October, PEER observed eight hearings that the Parole Board held via teleconference, due to COVID-19 precautions. None of the five members had perfect attendance, and one member missed five of the eight hearings and was considerably late for two others. Yet, all five turned in time cards claiming they worked a full 40-hour week, according to PEER.
Steven Pickett, the Parole Board’s chairman, objected to most of PEER’s findings. Among other responses, he claimed that for decades, until State Auditor Shad White made a stink about it last year, members of the Parole Board were routinely reimbursed for their mileage, hotels and food if they lived more than 60 miles from Jackson. Pickett also claimed that members often work past 5 p.m. and that in the week monitored by PEER, the board actually conducted a total of 178 hearings, not just the eight cited for allegedly poor attendance.
PEER isn’t backing down. In a response to Pickett’s response, it noted that the chairman himself told PEER staff that board members do not come to the Jackson office on Fridays, contrary to what’s typically on their time sheets.
This is more than an exercise in intragovernmental sniping. The Parole Board comes up next year for its periodic review, at which time the Legislature could consider the prospect — floated in the PEER report — to transfer parole decisions to the Department of Corrections, rather than having them made by an independent body.
That would be a mistake. There would be all kinds of potential for abuse — including coercion and bribes — if those who guard the inmates also get to decide when they get out.
A less fraught remedy is already in Gov. Tate Reeves’ hands. If there are any slackers on the Parole Board, or if they are unable to do the job as it is spelled out in state law, they can be replaced at any time.
- Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.