Parole Board changing for the better

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. 

The fiscal impact of truth in sentencing

In effect every sentence increased by two thirds. The prison population has climbed dramatically since then. The statute only applied going forward because the state constitution bars retroactive hikes in punishment. A few inmates convicted long ago still earn good time. To say the same thing a different way, the state's $100 million corrections budget might be in the $60 million range if truth in sentencing had never happened.

"Forty years ago Ed Coolidge murdered Pamela Mason and dumped her in the snow," Sytek told Foster’s Daily Democrat in 2007. "He was eligible for release after only 18 years, but her family showed up for the parole hearing. People circulated petitions, and legions of people marched on the Statehouse. That's when we changed the law so a judge's sentence becomes the minimum sentence." 

Giving parolees a pat on the back

That was then. This is now. McVey advised the Parole Board to encourage folks who are trying hard to find and hold jobs outside prison. After all, they are human beings, she said, Most have never had a fair chance since the day were born. 

“They’re trying to rebuild their lives,” the consultant suggested. “They still have bad self images. You can help them when they’re slipping and sliding and might have to go back to prison.” 

McVey outlined a wide matrix of possible intermediate sanctions and rewards used in other states to address good and bad behavior on the street. In the old days a parole officer had two primary options: threaten to return someone to prison or bust them back to finish their maximum sentence inside. 

The consultant has met for several days with Corrections staff to review with them some draft guidelines for parole decisions.. They gave her the green light on 95 percent of her suggestions. 

“I’m feeling very good about where we are,” McVey said. “If you release someone and they go bad, but you used actuarial risk factors in your decision, you’re standing on the rock of Gibraltar.”

The short-lived sentencing reform of 2010

The Pew and consultants from the Council of State Governments teamed up much the same way in 2009 and 2010 helping New Hampshire policy makers learn what was driving high inmate recidivism and prison population growth. One of their findings: the New Hampshire Parole Board was maxing out far too many inmates, violating them too quickly and keeping too many nonviolent people well beyond their earliest possible release dates.. 

An extraordinary bipartisan, blue ribbon commission worked for more than a year with the researchers, debated their findings at every step, and unanimously agreed the state could save money, reduce recidivism and lower the crime rate by letting most inmates out sooner and helping them succeed when they left. The task force included Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, the House Speaker, the Senate president, other high ranking lawmakers, the attorney general, the governor, the chief justices of the superior and district courts, county jailers, the commissioners of Corrections and Health and Human Services, staff from New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, and others. 

The legislation they crafted, SB 500, sailed through both houses with bipartisan support in 2010 and lowered the prison population by nearly 300 inmates the first year. The state won federal grants to start programs for the extra folks on parole. The plan was to use the savings on prison costs to sustain a robust community corrections effort when the federal money ran out. It has now run out. 

Sytek, champion of criminal justice reinvestment 

Sytek won appointment to the Parole Board in large part by her strong support for his progressive policy embodied in SB 500. Former Gov. John Lynch spent heavy political capital on the idea and got burned by members of the Parole Board during his re-election race. Two of them ridiculed his prison reform law precisely when GOP gubernatorial candidate John Stephen was riding that issue to save his losing campaign. In contrast, Sytek testified for SB 500 at all its public hearings. 

As Sytek explained to lawmakers, the bill released all inmates, violent or not, at least nine months before the end of their maximum sentence. She defended this apparent leniency toward some of the most dangerous offenders as a matter of public safety. The police should know where every prisoner goes when they leave the joint. SB 500 gave even defiant, rule-breaking inmates a parole officer to help them succeed. Or catch them right away doing something bad. 

And the savings from a gradual prison drawdown had a better use, Sytek argued. The money could fund a wide range of vital options: drug courts, job training, mental health services for parolees, housing, peer mentoring programs, case managers, drug and alcohol treatment programs on the outside. 

SB 500 also released nonviolent inmates after no more than 120 percent of their minimum sentence, plus 120 percent of any bad time earned through disciplinary write-ups. A real trouble maker could still add 150 days per year to their minimum sentence. 

The Parole Board was conspicuously absent from the planning process behind all these reforms. Indeed, John Eckert, the former executive assistant to the Parole Board, dismissed SB 500 as “a get-out-of-jail free card” in his legislative testimony. Parole Board member Gregory Crompton said of the law, “I hope nothing happens to the citizens of New Hampshire.” 

No good crime bill survives for long

Where did all the hoped-for savings on prison costs go? Lawmakers used some of it to reduce taxes. None of it paid for services to help a parolee stay clean. A Republican/Tea Party/Libertarian/Free State/Americans for Prosperity majority swept to power in 2010, gutted SB 500 and returned broad discretion to the Parole Board. As a direct result, the prison census has soared to near pre-SB 500 levels. 

Several trustee prisoners with bachelors degrees persuaded sympathetic lawmakers like Rep. David Welch (R-Kingston) to sponsor legislation allowing inmates to earn time off their minimum sentences through hard work. All of those inmates saved every dime they made in their prison jobs and sold museum-quality furniture in the prison hobby craft store to pay the tuition for maybe one college course a year. The Pell grants for prisoners disappeared a long time ago. Welch was rewarded for his political courage. A series of attack mailers last summer took him out in the Republican primary in the final week. 

One key reform has survived the tough-on-crime backlash of 2011 and 2012. Parole officers still possess many new, graduated and immediate ways to sanction a parolee short of busting someone back to stir for a long time. That was the tragic normal practice only three years ago. One option for parole officers now is a weekend stay behind bars. The offender learns a lesson, keeps a needed job and remains part of their family.. Wives, moms, girlfriends, boyfriends and kids make good voluntary assistant parole officers. 

Parole officers are learning too 

Parole Board member Jeff Brown, who attended a recent national training on community corrections, is tracking a revolution among parole officers around the country. At the recent planning workshop back in New Hampshire, he said they are learning to help, coach and encourage parolees to stay sober, safe and employed. One goal is to give an offender positive feedback four times as often as criticism. 

According to Brown, the list of possible rewards might include simple praise, a later curfew, thank you cards, gas cards, gym memberships, barbershop cards, letters of support to the court, reduced supervision, early termination from supervision, bus passes, baseball tickets, a waiver of supervision fees, travel permits, field trips, a graduation ceremony, a certificate of accomplishment, printed or posted success stories, travel permits, gift cards, or a phone visit as opposed to the more stressful office visit. In the past a parolee was well advised to fear, avoid and hide things from a parole officer. Maybe those stern authority figures are adopting some gentler roles. To mentor. To advocate. 

Sytek would give probation officers new tools too

Sytek’s husband John, a state rep from Salem, sponsored a bill giving similar nuanced powers to probation officers. HB 644 sailed through the House and would let an alcoholic probationer who misses some AA meetings spend a weekend or two or three or four in jail before looking at serious time behind the walls. The philosophy behind the bill is to rehabilitate offenders and save money on the costs of incarceration. The bill left the Senate Judiciary Committee with a 5-0 endorsement and goes before the full Senate this week. 

Maybe this is where we are headed. Give prisoners and parolees a second or third or fourth chance. Take some carefully measured actuarial risks with them. Understand the new clinical risk assessment tools. Recognize offenders and ex-offenders for their serious efforts at self improvement. Help them. Fund some community programs to help them stay clean. Let them dream of making it in a tough economy. 

A profile of parole consultant Catherine McVey

This was McVey’s bio on the website of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole when she recently served as its chair.

Catherine C. McVey received her Bachelor of Science Degree in Law Enforcement and Corrections Administration from Penn State University in 1973 and her Master of Science Degree in Correctional Administration from Sam Houston State University in 1975. She was a licensed as a Professional Counselor in Texas, in 1983 and worked with juvenile substance abusers and female offenders. 

Chairman McVey has over 35 years of experience working with incarcerated and paroled offenders in Texas and Pennsylvania. 

In the first 25 years of her career, Chairman McVey worked in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in numerous positions including: as a Texas Correctional Officer, the Director of Texas Reentry Services, Special Needs Reentry Coordinator, Administrator for Classification and Treatment, Assistant Director of Treatment of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and Director of Institutional Parole and Field Parole Reentry Services, and also was a Probation and Parole Consultant/Trainer with the Sam Houston State University, Correctional Management Institute. Chairman McVey, upon retiring from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in June 1998, returned to her home, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to continue her career in corrections with the PA Department of Corrections. 

Chairman McVey served as Director for Health and Mental Health Care Services from 1998 to 2005, and was subsequently appointed as Deputy Secretary for Administration with the PA Department of Corrections in 2003, serving in that capacity until 2005. 

In July 2005 she was confirmed by the Senate to serve a six-year term, as a Board Member of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. She was subsequently appointed by Governor Rendell as Chairman of the PA Board of Probation and Parole. 

During her career Chairman McVey has actively participated in professional associations, including the Association of Paroling Authorities International, serving as the Chair, Council of Chairs from 2006-2010, and the American Correctional Association in which she served in a number of positions: Legislative Affairs Committee, Correctional Health Care Committee, Commissioner, Commission on Accreditation, ACA. Other special areas of professional involvement include: Member of the Advisory Committee for the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, Consultant National Institute of Justice Female Offenders, Director INS-TDCJ Criminal Alien Facility Project.