September 22, 2012

An interview with former parole board commissioner Tom Grant

An interview with former parole board commissioner Tom Grant. For complete report, see:

Q & A: Tom Grant, by John Caher (New York Law Journal, 21 September 2012)

Tom Grant gives his views on the parole process, including the selection of parole commissioners, pre- and post-interview preparation and discussion, the risk-and-needs assessment instrument, the movement towards a determinate sentencing structure, pressure on parole commissioners from public officials and members of the public, and unpopular parole decisions that result in public scrutiny and criticism.

Perhaps the most significant part of the interview is where Grant admits that there are some inmates who may never be paroled, no matter how well they do while in prison, and even if there is no likelihood that they will ever commit another crime:

"I happened to see one inmate on two separate occasions during my time on the parole board. He had participated in a heartbreaking crime as a teenager and he had subsequently done remarkably well during his lengthy period of incarnation. I don't believe he had one disciplinary infraction. He had already been denied by two or three parole boards, primarily due to the nature of the offense. It was a fatal shooting and he had an accomplice. During his interview, the other board commissioners and I focused on the logistics because it was unclear who might have actually fired the fatal shot. We denied him. From time to time I thought about the case. I said to myself, "I'll re-examine this, if I ever see this guy again," but it's all random who comes before you at an interview so I didn't know if I would see him again.

Four years go by, and I see him and the same questions come up, as they would. He was still doing well. In my opinion, he had no more likelihood of committing a crime than you or I. This time I voted to release him and the two other commissioners on the panel voted to keep him in. He is still in. He has life at the end of his sentence. I still think about it. We got bogged down with the logistics. He may never go home. That is the one I think about."

Grant's views on risk-and-needs assessment:

"The recent statute requiring the parole board to use a risk-and-needs assessment is perhaps the most significant positive change in parole-related statutes in the last two decades. Now that the Legislature and the Executive have moved away from an indeterminate sentencing structure to a determinate sentencing scheme, most of the cases the parole board will see in the future will be the non-drug A1 violent felons where the maximum sentence is life. If you look at the last two decades of research, the recidivism rate for released A1 violent felons is remarkably low. I would expect the risk-and-needs assessment instrument will provide the commissioners with a valuable empirical tool that will greatly aid them in decision making."

Grant makes the following two recommendations for reform:

"There should be a one-term limitation for parole board commissioners. The commissioner would, on the day of confirmation, know exactly when his term would end. This would reduce, if not eliminate, any perceived "outside influences" on the parole decision making process.

The second reform would offer the inmate an option to have a hearing, rather than just an interview, between the inmate and the commissioners for A1 felony (non-drug) cases. The inmate would be able to call witnesses on his behalf, perhaps relatives, employers, corrections counselors, someone from the Fortune Society or the Osborne Association. On the other side, if there was opposition to the release, the district attorney could participate, victims or their representatives, if they chose, could talk about how they and their families have been affected.

The hearing system for the A1's would ensure that the Parole Board had enough information to make an informed and reasoned decision based on the governing statutes.

If both of these proposals were enacted, they would encourage the board members to take even more care in their decision making."