My Thoughts on The Fiscal Year 2011 Statistical Report from The Board of Pardons and Paroles

I have always loved to study and interpret statistics. It can be pretty fascinating stuff, especially where the statistics deal with a topic of great interest.  Sometimes, statistics can really tell us an awful lot, if properly understood. I recently had a chance to sit down and study the latest statistics coming out of TDCJ’s Board of Pardons and Paroles, as well as a few pieces of data from the Corrections Division of TDCJ, and I thought maybe it would be worthwhile to reflect upon some insights I have gained from this review.

Let’s start with a few of the big picture items. None is bigger, to me at least, than the number 78,391. That number represents the number of prisoners in Texas who were reviewed for parole in fiscal year 2011. It never ceases to amaze me that just 18 people (Board Members and Parole Commissioners) can have enough time in their work schedule to determine the fate of nearly 80,000 people spread out across the state of Texas each and every year.

To be clear, the number of voters is actually 19, if you include the votes cast by the head of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, Ms. Rissie Owens.  However, Ms. Owens participates in less than 2000 voting decisions per year, most of which are likely SB 45 cases requiring a seventh and final vote to determine the outcome.  So, the 18 aforementioned people are performing the herculean chore of voting cases, lots and lots of cases, while Ms. Owens is performing the executive functions in Austin and in Huntsville.

This same group of just 18 people must also consider the outcome of over 20,000 decisions regarding shortway votes, otherwise known as discretionary mandatory supervision. The aforementioned 18 voters are also responsible for performing the administrative duties of their positions, including signing off on the modification of parole conditions for current parolees.  As if all of that wasn’t enough, these 18 very busy people must, per their own policy, visit inmates incarcerated for greater than 20 years who are being considered for parole.  Finally, the 18 people are regularly required to approve or  sign off on the decisions made by Hearing Officers regarding parole revocations. It’s safe to conclude that these 18 people are earning every single penny they are paid, and then some.

With almost 80,000 people considered for parole in Texas this past fiscal year, the number who actually received a positive parole vote was just over 24,000, which represents just 31% of the total.  The parole release rate has remained around 30% for the last four years.  This figure of 30% includes all parole considerations, not just one’s initial parole consideration.  So, what does this fact tell us?  Well, not too much about any specific case.  However, it probably tells us something about the underlying philosophy of the parole system.

Since TDCJ is only properly equipped and staffed to house about 156,000 inmates, and the inmate population has remained steady at approximately 156,000 during the last four years, the number of prisoners who leave TDCJ matches up quite well with the number of people who are entering TDCJ.  Coincidence?  You decide.  I fully believe that if the state had the money to build more prisons, those in charge, i.e. legislators, would build more prisons.  We have over 100 prisons already, but they would almost certainly build more for solely political reasons, if money was not a limiting factor.  Such construction would undoubtedly have the effect of creating a lower overall parole release rate than the 30% that presently exists.  Thank goodness they don’t have a bunch of cash on hand!

The statistics recently released by TDCJ also contradict inmate rumors that everybody is getting a favorable parole vote nowadays.  This is definitely not the case, especially given that the 30% figure and the inmate population total have both been pretty constant over the last few years.

One thing that has always piqued my curiosity is the voting trends of individual Board Members and Commissioners. Theoretically, the 18 people who cast the votes are following exactly the same set of rules, guidelines, and Board policies.  But, like all things in life that are completely discretionary, there are differences in the overall rate at which the individual voters allow offenders to leave TDCJ.  Moreover, these differences appear to be pretty consistent over time.  In other words, the voters who are less likely to provide a favorable parole vote to an inmate today have also voted in a similar manner in the past.  So, there really is some truth to long held inmate suspicions that the odds of being released on parole in Texas can go up or down, depending on who is making the decision.  However, inmates often exaggerate these differences between Board Offices or individual voters.  The one exception appears to be Amarillo.  I have never understood why, but it is irrefutable that Amarillo is the Board Office with consistently low parole release rates, and this has been the case for years.  Again, I do not know why this is the case, and perhaps the numbers do not tell the whole story, but the statistics do not lie.

When we look at the choices available to render a favorable vote, i.e. “FI-___ “, I am of the opinion that FI-2 is quite under-utilized.  Of the 24,000+ favorable votes, just 13.92% are FI-2, and less than 3,500 offenders receive this vote per year.    FI-2 is really only different from FI-1 in one respect: FI-1 allows the offender to leave prison and begin parole as soon as the paperwork is done.  In most cases, that is less than a month.  FI-2, on the other hand, would allow the offender to be released prior to being reviewed again, but still requires the offender to remain incarcerated for a number of months, usually 3-9, before being sent home.

The reason I have for believing FI-2 is under-utilized is simply that a significant percentage of inmates are great candidates for parole, but in many cases, these people simply may not have served quite enough time in the Board’s view at the time of the parole review.  Yet, utilizing the FI-2 vote would serve several purposes simultaneously.  First and foremost, it would avoid the necessity and expense of pulling the file next year and reviewing the offender again.  Second, it would provide a very bright light at the end of an otherwise dark tunnel for an inmate and his/her family.  Wives, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, and of course children could have the peace of knowing that the end of the nightmare is in sight.  Never underestimate the power of hope!  Finally, having more FI-2 votes in place would provide the Board a little greater opportunity to delve into other files more deeply, interview more inmates, and maybe even have a little more time to enjoy the very important job they are having to perform.

There are many interesting aspects of the reports generated by the Board of Pardons and Paroles, and if you’d like to check out the Parole Board’s statistical reports, they can be found in the “publications” section of the Board’s website.

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