By Mike Ward
Wednesday, February 13, 2002
Members of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles,
after days of what they acknowledged had been a sometimes heated,
behind-the-scenes debate, called Tuesday for tougher guidelines for releasing drunken drivers and child molesters from state
prisons. The board's members were critical of rules that have been in effect for six months -- Texas' first attempt in more than a decade to use meaningful parole guidelines to help choose which criminals to free early from prison. "We have very good building blocks and a good foundation, but there is still work that has to be done," said board member Lynn Brown of Waco, a former federal parole commissioner who had been among those critical of some aspects of the new guidelines. "It's a work in progress," agreed board member Alvin Shaw of Austin. Board members said they expect any changes in the guidelines to be made next fall, after enough time has passed to allow statistics to be collected on their overall effectiveness. More than half of the 18-member parole board attended Tuesday's public meeting. The board, one of the most secretive agencies of state government, decides cases in private, and most of its records are not subject to public review. Officials said the guidelines adopted last September are the first widely used in Texas since the late 1980s, when overcrowded prisons forced the release of thousands of convicts. The new guidelines assign a numeric risk factor and offense severity to each case that comes to the parole board for consideration, among other statistics. Parole board members can consider those factors as they review a convict's file to vote for or against a parole. But they are not required to approve a parole just because the numbers are good.
Several board members have complained that some crimes such as driving while impaired, assault on a public servant and
indecency with a child are not ranked severely enough. Others argue that the rankings of others such as burglary of a vehicle and burglary of a building are ranked too high. In addition, board members have voiced concerns that parolees sent back to prison for breaking the rules of their parole, not committing new crimes, do not fit the guidelines. Others want data such as the average sentence length and time served for a crime included in the information board members receive under the guidelines. Years ago, it was included, several said. "If I could look at the average time and average sentence for an offense, it would give me a better base of reference when I consider a file and give the system more equity," Shaw said. "If you had a son serving time in West Texas for a crime and someone else had another son serving time in East Texas for the same crime, you would probably think they'd do about the same amount of time, if everything else was equal." Despite the concerns, Board Chairman Gerald Garrett of Austin said he thinks the new guidelines are "definitely in the ballpark. . . . Having guidelines makes the system better." In the six months since the guidelines were put in place, Garrett said, board members have generally followed them, more so for low-risk offenders than for high-risk offenders serving time for violent crimes.