As a threshold matter, I apologize for letting this blog post go pretty far north of 1000 words. The blogging gods say blogs are best at 400-600 words. I guess I’m way off the target blog length here. Yet, there are those times when you share your thoughts on a particular issue and as they are written out in sentences and paragraphs, the words just seem to multiply. This topic is one of those topics where it’s hard for me to remain loyal to the blogging gods. I’ll pray for forgiveness later.
According to established TDCJ protocol, in Texas, a “victim” who wishes to protest the parole release of a TDCJ Offender is not only free to do so, but your tax dollars are also being spent to try to locate these victims and get them to lodge more protests.
The expenditure of state funds in this manner undoubtedly leads to more victims protesting the release of more prisoners than if no public funds were spent trying to locate these people. Shouldn’t we be allowed to see the effect of these protests on the parole decision, especially a protest procured in such a state funded manner? If you are guessing that we do not get to see what the effect of victim protests is on the parole decision making process, you are correct.
In my opinion, it’s fair to first ask why the state has taken it upon itself to spend the public’s scarce financial resources in order to get more aggrieved persons more involved in the protest of the proper release of prisoners on parole. Then, the second reasonable question I would ask is this, “How much weight do we (and should we) accord such protests?”
I placed quotations around the word victim, because the definition of “victim” for TDCJ is not what you might think. “Victim” according to the broadest possible definition imaginable (the one they use) may include an immediate family member of a crime victim, as well as “other interested persons”.
Huh? I thought we Texans were supposed to be all about smaller government. You know, rugged individualism, etc. Yes, there really are state employees, with benefits, etc. whose job it is to scour the earth to try to locate all the true victims of past crimes, as well as any other folks who might actually give a damn if some guy gets released from prison. No kidding.
I’m just wondering why we can’t have a system where we allow the true victims of crime, if they choose to do so, to simply take it upon themselves to spend a few minutes on the internet or pick up the phone and figure out what, if anything, they can do to let their opinions be known to parole officials about how they feel regarding the release of a particular inmate? And if they do take it upon themselves to let their opinion be known, isn’t also fair to allow the intelligent and highly educated Parole Board/Parole Commissioners who cast votes to still consider other views instead of being afraid to defy the wishes, no matter how unreasonable, of individual crime victims?
Besides the broad concept of “victim” protests, the District Attorney’s office that prosecuted the crime in the first place may also protest, and the DA’s are given notice and the opportunity to protest well before the inmate is even considered for parole. More of your tax dollars at work.
A few DA’s, like the one from Williamson County, actively protest parole for many of the people they’ve previously convicted, in addition to their infamous habit of seeking, and obtaining, very long sentences for crimes that one wouldn’t expect would normally carry such harsh sentences. When the legendarily “tough on crime” DA’s from Harris or Bexar counties look downright fair by comparison, something’s not right.
I think the residents of Williamson County, and a few other places (Comal County, for example) ought to be charged higher state sales tax rates than other places, since they like to put their bad guys behind bars for such extremely long periods of time, then they go out of their way to see to it that these same bad guys stay behind bars longer than everyone else. But that’s a topic for another blog post…
Incredibly, we have a system in Texas where prisoners are only interviewed by a voting Parole official in approximately 2% of the cases, and yet ALL “victims” get to speak to the lead voter, in every single instance where they want to do so. No, really.
The excuse given for not requiring the voters at the Board of Pardons and Paroles to actually sit down and talk to the prisoner, and then decide when he’s ready to go home, is a lack of money. Or, maybe it’s claimed that such interviews would not provide any useful information, so why do it? If such nonsense were to be officially asserted by anyone at TDCJ, I’d be surprised.
Millions are spent on “Victim Services” instead of on the additional salaries involved with having more Board Members and/or Commissioners. We currently have 6 Board Members and 12 Commissioners who vote the majority of cases, and a Board Member in Austin who is the Head of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. That’s not a lot of people, considering the enormous number of cases that these hard working folks review every day.
We do more damage to the integrity of the system by allowing crime victims (and those who enjoy blaming all of life’s woes on a criminal event) to monopolize the limited time of the extremely busy (overworked?) Parole Board Members/Commissioners. As incredible as all of this may seem, that’s exactly what we’ve got here in the Lone Star State.
I’m afraid that the above reality is not only the truth, but it gets worse. The substance of the “protests”, whether written, oral, or both, is kept completely secret from the entire world. The danger, of course, is that a person protesting the release of a person they almost always despise may be able to provide biased, exaggerated, or even false information to the lead voter in any given prisoner’s parole review consideration. Sadly, the inmate (or the inmate’s attorney) will never have any way to challenge the veracity of the representations that were made by the protester, and the voter is likely to take such dubious information as truth.
In theory, allowing the victim of a crime to participate in the parole process sounds reasonable. However, crime victims are already encouraged to become quite involved in the prosecution of persons accused of criminal behavior at the courthouse, where the punishments are handed out. Prosecutors customarily work closely with victims of crime, especially in case of violent crimes and crimes involving deviant sexual behavior.
It is extremely common for a prosecutor to seek out the views of the crime victim and his/her loved ones and then honor the wishes of a victim (and/or the victim’s family) in negotiating plea agreements and in deciding which cases to take to trial. It really does seem proper and totally appropriate to give real respect and meaning to the views of victims at the trial stage of the criminal justice process. It is also some of the most noble and valuable work performed by prosecutors.
By getting victims into the parole scene, the crime victims, and their family members, and other “interested persons” get a second bite at the apple. Not only did they get to have a great deal of influence over the prosecution of those accused of the crimes, but their influence is multiplied if their protest is a key factor when the prisoner is to be considered for parole.
If this broad category of victims is automatically given the opportunity to have an audience with the lead voter at the Board Office that is responsible for determining if the Offender will be released on parole, it is fair to ask what the effect of all these protests is on the inmate’s opportunity to make parole. Yet, the answer is kept as a closely guarded secret in the Board Offices.
I’ve pondered this cause and effect question for a long time. Regrettably, despite TDCJ’s official position that a victim protest is merely a “factor” among many, I have come to believe that the truth would likely shock the public. I would estimate, and it is just my educated guess, that parole is denied in 90 to 99% of the cases where a “victim” protest is on file, regardless of the inmate’s rehabilitation, character, efforts at complying with the prison’s many rules and policies, family support network, job opportunities, etc. etc. If I am correct, the effect of the protest undermines the integrity of the entire parole review process.
It’s obvious that I believe the manner in which victim protests are handled at the Board of Pardons and Paroles is severely flawed. Immediate reform is needed. Unfortunately, I have not seen any indication that the Board is going to undertake such reforms voluntarily. If the victim protest really does equate to “Parole Denied”, we’ve given the victim more power than the judge, the jury, and the entire TDCJ Board of Pardons and Paroles.