When parole goes on trial


Over the last decade, victims of crime -- and their extended families -- have doggedly lobbied politicians in an effort to make themselves the fourth-party players in the criminal justice system. In one corner, we have the defense; in another, the prosecution; at center ring, the judiciary; and, crying out from the gallery, we have the grieving relatives of crime victims, and sometimes the victims themselves.

The Roper Committee has been at work for years now, and has scored a number of legislative victories in Annapolis. The crime-victim lobby has been demanding tougher sentencing from judges. It has urged that victim-impact statements be considered part of the official record of criminal proceedings, right along with medical examiners' reports and the results of ballistics testing. It has demanded that victims be granted the statutory right to be notified of parole hearings for criminals. Six years ago, the state legislature accorded crime victims -- or their survivors -- the right to have victim-impact statements considered at parole hearings.

On this year's victim-rights agenda, there was more proposed legislation regarding parole. And though it already has received an unfavorable report from a Senate committee, it again raised profound questions about the rights of victims to have a voice in the criminal justice process.

This time, victims wanted the right to attend parole hearings of the inmates who victimized them. They wanted the hearings to be open to the public for the first time in more than two decades. Years ago, hearings conducted by the old Maryland Parole Board were open to press and public. That changed when the legislature rewrote laws on parole and established hearings of the new Maryland Parole Commission as personal and informal meetings with prisoners who had served at least a quarter of their sentences. It wasn't until the mid-1980s that victims or their families were notified of parole hearings and allowed to have some formal input.

Nowadays, the Parole Commission entertains office visits from victims or their survivors. Updated impact statements go into the record. But victims are not allowed to pull up a chair during the parole hearings themselves.

Last year, there were more than 11,000 such hearings held in penal institutions across the state, according to Paul J. Davis, commission chairman. That makes for a busy schedule. Parole commissioners or designated hearing officers handle up to 15 30-minute hearings a day. Not all requests for parole are granted, despite public perception that the state is free and easy with parole. Only a third of inmates released from the Maryland penal system each year are released on parole. On average, those inmates have served 52 percent of their sentences, undercutting another common belief that the system, under pressure of prison overcrowding, releases inmates the first time they are eligible for parole.

Davis says he wants the commission to be more active in TTC soliciting input from crime victims and their families. He says he has worked with the various victim-assistance units around the state in notifying victims of approaching parole hearings.

But he doesn't support the bill to give victims the right to attend parole hearings. There are a number of logistical problems. Accommodating the public will cost additional money and slow the process. But, more than that, there's the larger question of whether victims attending a parole hearing will turn it into a quasi-judicial proceeding -- in effect, a retrial of the original case. That's not the assignment of the Parole Commission.

Understandably, if crime victims had their way, no criminal would ever be paroled. They are not impressed by any rehabilitative progress a convicted murderer or rapist might have made while in jail. "I don't want him paroled while I'm alive," Lois Hess, the mother of a murder victim, told me the other day. She was speaking of the man who killed her son 16 years ago; he is eligible for first parole consideration this month. Hess has gathered hundreds of names on petitions against the parole and intends to present them to Davis today.

It's a classic example of the conflict between the emotional needs of crime victims and the laws of a constitutional society. In Lois Hess' mind, the man who killed her son is still the 21-year-old no-good who wounded her and her husband for life; he should serve his full sentence. The laws of Maryland, however, accord that man, now in his mid-30s, the opportunity to show he has changed. If we no longer want to be that humane, then we should eliminate parole completely. . . . and build more prisons.

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