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Commentary: SC’s parole system is doing more harm than good

Jon Ozmint, a former director of the S.C. Department of Corrections, contends that the state parole system is dysfunctional and unfair. File/Andrew Whitaker/Staff By Andrew Whitaker awhitaker@postandcourier.com

Jon Ozmint is a former director of the S.C. Department of Corrections. Provided

Decades of evidence proves that a functional parole system makes us all safer. Human beings don’t function well without hope, and the hope of parole incentivizes good behavior and reformation, reducing costs and making prisons and society safer. Unfortunately, even as South Carolina taxpayers continue to fund our parole agency, that agency has effectively nullified state law, eliminating parole and negatively impacting public safety. In fact, our parole apparatus has become so dysfunctional and unfair that it is doing more harm than good.

False hope and systemic unfairness create levels of frustration, anger and despair that can be more dangerous than hopelessness. Our parole agency has manipulated the system to ensure that even objectively low-risk inmates who have decades of perfect behavior and proven reformation have no chance at making parole. For example, there’s a law that allows our agency to protect the opinions of parole agents from disclosure; it has corrupted the law in order to tip the scales against applicants by creating a secret case summary. Instead of requesting the court transcripts at sentencing of parole-eligible defendants — an easy task — the agency admittedly includes unproven, unsworn hearsay and extraneous allegations that are nowhere to be found in the judicial record. Instead of relying on indictments and the court record, it relies on decades-old incident reports, statements and other extra-judicial materials. This often-inaccurate information is provided to the parole board as the official factual summary on which the board must rely. These summaries can contradict judicial and law enforcement findings and investigations. It’s no surprise that the agency refuses to provide these summaries to appellate courts. It’s a star chamber, operating above the courts. Or consider that our parole agency has a written rule that applicants must review their parole file and notify the board of errors. Yet it refuses to allow applicants or their attorneys access to the parole record. Just let that sink in.

It gets worse. To improve the parole process, in 2010 the Legislature required the agency to start administering an objective risk-assessment to each applicant. These assessments have been validated nationally and improved over decades to accurately measure risk of re-offense. They are intended to help officials make sound release decisions. This is not an agent’s opinion; it’s an objective assessment, paid for by taxpayers and intended to help offenders reform, reduce risk and make us all safer. Shockingly, our parole agency responded to this legislative mandate by refusing to administer the assessment before every hearing. When it does administer the assessment, it refuses to disclose the risk assessment to offenders, attorneys or corrections officials. It’s hard to fathom, but our parole agency intentionally decreases public safety by prohibiting the use of this publicly funded assessment to help inmates address weaknesses. Consistent with its practice of ignoring the objective assessment, the agency encourages board members to reject evidence-based decision-making, by ignoring objective, predictive criteria and relying exclusively on opposition witnesses and the circumstances of the crime. As one court recently noted, this approach “effectively denies eligibility for parole.” In hearing procedures, regardless of its rules, the agency allows unlimited witnesses and unlimited time to those who oppose parole, and those witnesses are allowed to appear in person with the board. But the agency allows only three witnesses for the applicant, by video only, and neither the applicant nor counsel is allowed to appear in person with the board. For applicants, time is always limited, and the board routinely cuts them off after only a few minutes. Hearings routinely last less than five minutes, including deliberations and voting.

Recently, the agency authorized the board to limit its consideration to only 20 pages submitted by the applicant. This is in clear violation of S.C. Code Section 24-21-640, which provides that the board “shall consider the record of the inmate before, during, and after imprisonment.” That doesn’t say part of the record, and it doesn’t allow this short cut.

Sadly, by one measure our parole agency has been quite successful: It gets paid to do little more than rubber stamp denials. Our prison system has proven that its programming works, setting national records for low recidivism. The numbers prove that Corrections Department inmates are better prepared for release than ever before. Against that backdrop, the effective parole rate for the past year — those leaving prison more than one year early — has dropped to less than 1%: 0.4%. In the year ending in April, out of 1,635 hearings, only six inmates left prison early on parole: the proverbial rubber stamp.

Recently, more than 20 national corrections experts, representing more than 600 years of corrections and community corrections experience, signed a friend of the court brief expressing dismay at the procedures and outcomes of our board.

Lawmakers should abolish parole or else reform our parole system and transfer its work to the Department of Corrections. If it’s the former, then the millions of dollars we are currently wasting on our no-parole board and agency should be directed to our prisons to deal with the inevitable bad consequences. But the latter approach, reform, would be better. Our state would be safer with a parole agency that believed in parole for reformed offenders.

Jon Ozmint is an attorney, a former corrections director and a former prosecutor who has helped 43 lifers earn parole and reenter society successfully.

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