In Texas, in order for a prisoner to leave prison early, the parole eligible offender must be given a positive parole vote by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. I spend a lot of my professional time trying to somehow get inside the minds of the 18 people who regularly vote cases at the Parole Board in order to try to know for sure what information I can provide that will make a difference and result in a positive vote for my clients.
The issue of victim protests is something many people tend to overlook. However, it is a critically important issue, and it is my opinion that victim protests play an enormous role in the decision making process at the Texas Board of of Pardons and Paroles. In fact, I believe, though I cannot prove, that a protest is nearly always fatal to the offender’s chances of going home on parole, regardless of just about ANY other fact. The purpose of this blog post is to discuss this issue and provide a common sense way of dealing with the situation of a victim protest.
As a preliminary matter, it is important to understand that TDCJ devotes a considerable amount of time and energy to get in contact with victims of crime in order to inform the victim that the person who committed the crime is going to be considered for parole in the near future, and TDCJ’s Victim Services Division also informs the victim that they have the right to file a protest. The regular practice at the Parole Board is to afford the victim the right to speak to the lead voter in the case in order to provide any input or information the victim wishes to provide. Therefore, in addition to prosecuting attorneys making considerable efforts to include victims’ wishes in the prosecution of crime, parole officials also spend time and money encouraging victim participation in the parole review process.
Not all victims are located or contacted, but many are. When a victim is located, the victim may simply choose to ignore the parole situation altogether, or may choose to get involved.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles does not disclose any information about victim protests, and will not ever disclose whether a protest even exists in any given case. They strictly follow this policy. There is a valid reason for not disclosing this information. Namely, the Board does not want the incarcerated person or his/her family to retaliate or threaten revenge against anyone for filing a parole protest.
Although the policy reason for keeping the protest information private is certainly valid, there are some real problems in allowing victims to get involved in the parole review process. I will briefly discuss these problems in this blog post.
In my opinion, the biggest problem with allowing protests into the parole review process is that, in nearly every case where there is a victim, the victim has already had a very substantial say in how the prosecuting attorney handles the prosecution of the accused. Moreover, once there is either a plea agreement or a guilty finding by a judge or jury, the victim(s) are afforded the opportunity to testify and such participation in the process will almost always be designed to influence the judge or jury to assess a longer term of incarceration. And let’s not forget that Judges are elected to the bench in Texas. In other words, the victim of crime is ordinarily a major player in the punishment of crime at the courthouse. Therefore, once the punishment occurs, it seems unfair to allow the victim to further influence the offender’s opportunity to be treated fairly by the Parole Board, just like every other inmate who is under consideration. It just seems like the victim is given two bites at the proverbial apple, and the accused is punished twice.
The second biggest problem I have with allowing victim involvement in the parole process is that the convicted criminal has absolutely no way to rebut or refute ANY of the assertions of fact that are made by the victim of the crime. This is because, in addition to not even knowing whether there IS a protest, neither the criminal nor his attorney is ever given the details of the victim’s protest.
For example, let’s say a purse snatcher with a drug addiction tries to steal a purse in order to get some money for his next fix, and the woman holding the purse holds on to her purse for dear life and falls to the ground in the brief struggle. Then, let’s say the criminal is apprehended and prosecuted. These are the exact facts of a case I worked on a couple of years back. Now, let’s suppose the victim gets involved, really involved, and does everything she can to see to it the accused is punished severely. She even starts blaming all of her many problems in life, and inventing ones that are not even real, on the man who stole her purse and knocked her to the ground.
As odd as it may sound, this kind of thinking is actually not that all that extraordinary. Some people love to blame their problems on outside forces or people so as not to face reality. Reality requires one to own up to their own mistakes and failures. That takes courage and a sincere desire to become a better person. Anyway, the point here is that the aggrieved victim has the potential to poison the well at the Parole Board without ever having any of his/her assertions of fact challenged or properly vetted.
As if the above reasons are not enough, there is a third problem with the victim protests at the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. The protest almost always results in a denial of parole. Now, this is just my opinion, but I’m almost positive about this assertion after serving as a parole attorney and representing over 500 people in their parole review process.
Why does the protest pretty much guarantee a denial? (in my opinion). It’s simple when you stop and think about it. The Board of Pardons and Paroles is part of a state government. Thus, it’s a political entity. In fact, the people who sit on the Board are appointed by the Governor. It really doesn’t get much more political than that. Moreover, people who work in the state government do not want state senators or people from the Governer’s office calling over and asking why some really pissed off constituent (voter) is mad as hell and demands that the government do something about the terrible thing that happened over at the Parole Board. Can you really blame these folks when they choose to take the safe route and cover their behinds rather than risk the fallout of a gutsy call?
As I have said, I am not positive that a protest means it’s game over for the inmate aspiring to go home and live a crime-free, upstanding life, but given the above, I’m pretty darn sure I’m right on this issue.
So, if two people commit the same crime, and one ends up unwittingly having a victim, especially an angry one, and the other does not, it seems crazy that one will almost certainly not make parole, and the other likely will make parole, all other things being equal.
I guess the lesson here is this, if you really must commit a crime, try like heck not to have a victim. And if you do end up with a victim, you had better hope the victim knows (and practices) the virtue of forgiveness. Otherwise, you had better plan on spending a huge percentage, or maybe all of your sentence, behind bars
Instead of dwelling on things we cannot control, as depressing as this whole protest thing may seem to the unlucky offenders with angry victims, here’s a few things that can be done to potentially mitigate a parole protest.
1. The accused ought to do everything possible during the plea negotiation and sentencing to show genuine remorse, and take whatever steps possible to help the victim deal with the effects of the crime. The apologies must be sincere, and the defense attorney should not be afraid to allow such efforts at reaching out and showing a little humility and class in an otherwise unfortunate situation.
2. If the Court ordered the accused to pay restitution to the victim, a good faith effort at paying the restitution is a very good idea. Money might help to soothe the pain felt by some victims in certain cases.
3. The family of the accused should not resist the urge to tell the victim and/or their family how sorry they are. It’s not a sign of betrayal to a loved one to tell another human being that you care and that you are sorry about what happened to them. Sometimes such an apology will mean even more to a person than money.
4. Although many people do not forgive others, some do. However, it may take time. So, if a victim is hurting and angry, it’s possible that time will allow for a more calm reaction in the future. The prisoner shouldn’t expect instant forgiveness. Nonetheless, the sincerity of the apologies and genuine remorse may very well be to be soothing to a victim, eventually.
I hope we can someday see some objective and beneficial changes regarding victim protests. It is a very difficult situation that is not really going to improve without some major initiative on the part of some very brave politicians or state officials.