In Nevada, “mandatory” parole release is really just a suggestion

Lock ’em up and throw away the key
In: Las Vegas City Life
May 13, 2010

The southern half of the Nevada Parole Board meets in a conference room in east Las Vegas — where they sit behind a long table, addressing a high definition flat screen.

Video technology and the Internet allow them to order up cases from across the state. Today, the television is tuned to the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in Carson City.

Gerald Hudson shuffles to a chair in the center of the screen. The 40-year-old inmate holds a jumbo envelope containing the last two years’ accomplishments. He recites its contents: GED, high school diploma, another diploma from a substance abuse program and a completion certificate from victim awareness. He pauses and addresses his crime. “I’ve lost so many years for this,” Hudson says. “Alcohol caused me to act on impulse. I’ve had time to think about the consequences and the people I hurt.”

Hudson is appearing before the board for his second and final time, after serving more than three years for his first felony offense — endangerment and inflicting mental harm on a child. This is his mandatory parole release hearing, which is required by state law.

The goal is to give offenders with sentences of three years or longer one final shot at supervised release. Inmates are supposed to go before the board four months before the final year of their sentence. Good time credits for education and substance abuse treatment usually move the release date closer to six months before the end of the sentence. It’s part of an effort to get more prisoners out of prison and into some kind of community supervision. Ideally, these inmates will have used their time behind bars to better themselves and reflect on their crimes. Parole gives them the opportunity to prove they’ve learned their lesson, with consequences for failure.

Otherwise, inmates finish their sentences inside. They get “dumped,” in prison parlance. When their sentences end, they leave with $21 and a bus ticket. They go back to the streets, with no supervision and no structure. Hudson seems like a model candidate for parole release. After he was denied in his first parole hearing, the inmate turned over a new leaf. His release plan is so detailed it even includes the specific psychiatric center where he plans to continue counseling.

But it’s not necessarily a slam dunk. The parole commissioners determine that Hudson is a moderate risk to re-offend due to the nature of his crime. And they’re charged with making sure he doesn’t — at least not on their watch. Whatever decision these three commissioners make will be sent to the full board for ratification. At least four votes are required for parole.

“Regardless of what we do here today, you are going to get out,” says Commissioner Michael Keeler. “And our primary concern is public safety.”

Hard case

Nevada has always been a tough place for felons. The state has some of the stiffest sentences in the country, and one of the lowest rates of granting parole. The combination fueled explosive growth in the prison population during the late ’90s and early ’00s, a period when the violent crime rate actually dropped.

Even when the state had money, it couldn’t keep up with the demand for prison beds. So legislators decided to do something about it. They created an expert panel on sentencing, and concocted a few solutions. One of them, Assembly Bill 510 in the 2007 Legislature, increased the amount of credit inmates received for completing education and other programs. Before the bill, the parole board had a lot of leeway to count credits — and could take them away if parole was denied. That caused a great deal of angst among inmates, who never knew whether the board would honor their efforts to improve.

“There was a certain degree of morale factor with inmates who had gotten diplomas or GEDs,” said state Sen. David Parks, who was an assemblyman in 2007 and chairman of the committee that introduced AB 510. “They wouldn’t get their good time credits. We wanted to make it so once you earn them, you don’t get to lose them.”

Legislators like Parks wanted to encourage inmates to get an education. And they also wanted to ease the strain on prisons. The law had its intended effect. After its passage, the prison population leveled off, and even began to shrink. Members of the parole board said it hasn’t had any effect on recidivism. Most of the inmates paroled under the new guidelines fare as well as those released under the old, subjective system.

Read the rest here.

See also: The Crime Report (May 26, 2010)