In wake of complaints from inmates and their families, legislative panel scrutinizes parole board

2014-03-30T00:30:00Z 2015-01-14T07:01:05Z In wake of complaints from inmates and their families, legislative panel scrutinizes parole boardBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
March 30, 2014 12:30 am  • 

This is the first installment of a three-part series examining the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, whose procedures are being scrutinized by a legislative committee.

HELENA — Prison inmate Clive Kinlock and his wife, Joy, aren’t happy with the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, which they say too often ignores a prisoner’s rehabilitation efforts.

“They treat my husband like a lowlife, like he should never get out of prison, yet they don’t know anything about him,” she says. “They didn’t even review any of his accomplishments in prison. The only thing they reviewed was his crime.”

The board saw Kinlock for the first and only time five years ago after he’d spent 17 years in prison for assault, aggravated kidnapping and sexual intercourse without consent, in connection with the attempted robbery of a Great Falls bar in 1992. It denied his parole and said it wouldn’t consider him for parole again until 2017.

Kinlock’s wife notes that a number of prison staffers supported his parole and called him a “model prisoner,” and says he had completed his court-ordered treatment and lined up a job in his native Jamaica, where he would be deported after being paroled. Kinlock also denies the rape charge, and has been trying for years, without success, to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming it was coerced.

The board, however, denied parole because of the “severity of (his) offense.”

“How is that fair?” says Joy Kinlock. “The court already took into account the severity of the crime. … The parole board is still trying him. They’re saying `There is nothing you can do to earn parole — nothing you do has any weight with us.’”

Montana’s Parole Board, which decides parole for more than 1,000 inmates every year, has heard many complaints like these from inmates, their families and supporters, who believe the board too often denies parole for inmates who’ve achieved good records in prison.

Those complaints have caught the ear of the Montana Legislature, which has an interim committee studying the board and possibly proposing reforms later this year.

State Sen. Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell, who sponsored the measure calling for the study, says he’d like the law to create a more definite path to parole for some inmates, and limit what he sees as the Parole Board’s broad discretion to deny parole for almost any reason.

“Some people need to be in prison and some people need to be in prison for the rest of their life,” he says. “But others don’t need to be, and don’t need to be there costing the taxpayers and (costing their families).”

Mike McKee, the chairman of the Parole Board and a board member for 10 of the past 13 years, says it’s not unusual for the board to hear complaints from inmates denied parole — or, from victims or prosecutors unhappy that a certain inmate received parole.

“When we hold a hearing and make a decision, we’re either going to grant it or deny it, and we’re probably not going to have everybody happy,” he says.

Yet he disputes any claim that the board unfairly treats inmates, and says it would be a mistake to restrict what the board can consider when deciding whether to parole someone.

State law says the board may grant parole “only for the best interests of society” and can consider “all available and pertinent information” about the potential parolee.

The board, independent of any state agency, writes its own rules, which say it can consider just about anything when considering whether to grant parole — including the circumstances of the crime and whether parole would “diminish the seriousness of the offense.”

McKee says public safety is the board’s first concern, but that he considers the best interest of society to be “having that (inmate) go from being incarcerated, back into the community, as a productive member.”

Last year, the board interviewed 1,079 inmates up for parole and granted parole to 602 of them, or 56 percent. Some of those inmates later had their parole revoked or rescinded. The percentage of inmates paroled in neighboring states tends to be slightly higher.

The board usually attaches preconditions to parole, such as requiring the inmate to complete certain treatment programs in prison or live in a prerelease center in a local community for six months before being paroled.

Inmates and their supporters say these conditions sometimes are unreasonable, because they may not be able to get into a program or center for months, or at all, effectively denying their parole.

In January, corrections officials said 132 paroled inmates were still in prison, awaiting their release, more than six months after being approved for parole. Many had yet to find placement in the required program.

Board officials say they’ll review the case again if inmates have trouble meeting some preconditions of parole.

“I don’t think we’re trying to keep anybody in prison longer than absolutely necessary,” says Pete Lawrenson, a board member and retired Missoula police chief. “If we can get them back out to community placement and parole, we do that.”

McKee also says many complaints heard by legislators tell only half the story, and if lawmakers heard the whole story, they might have a different outlook.

In Kinlock’s case, for example, parole board staffers note that the victim of the crime opposed his release, as did Cascade County prosecutors and his 2009 case manager at Montana State Prison, citing the nature of his crime.

“The victim of this crime continues to have physical, financial, emotional, relationship and mental side-effects from this crime today,” the parole board's Executive Director Fern Johnson wrote in a 2011 email.

Kinlock’s wife says she doesn’t understand why an inmate who’s eligible and done all he can to improve himself should be denied solely because the board doesn’t like the crime he committed. That judgment has already occurred, she says.

“In our state, it’s all about punishment,” she says. “Why would you have parole, if you won’t grant it to those who are eligible?”

In Montana, inmates are eligible for parole once they’ve served one-fourth of their sentence. Kinlock had a 70-year sentence, which has been reduced to 35 years for good behavior.

Board members say just because someone is eligible and has a good prison record doesn’t mean they should be paroled.

“A judge gave a date-specific sentence, and that’s what the person’s sentence is,” McKee says. “There is a certain amount of judgment and subjectivity that will go into the decision that you haven’t served enough time for the crime that you committed.”

Attorneys rarely appear before the board on behalf of inmates, but those who do say it seems as if the board rarely grants parole to someone appearing for the first time on a lengthy sentence.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve done all your programming,” says Ron Waterman, a Helena lawyer. “I don’t know of any lawyer who’s had any positive experience that has gone before the parole board.”

Chuck Watson, a Bozeman lawyer who helped convicted murderer Becky Richards prepare her initial parole request in 2007, says the board denied her parole because “she won’t admit guilt.” Richards appeared before the board for a second time in 2012.

The board won’t allow her to be considered again for parole until 2017. She’d been in prison for 20 years and had a spotless record, Watson says.

Richards is serving life in prison for killing her husband, Jim Richards. In Montana, an offender serving a life sentence for a crime committed before 1995 can be eligible for parole after serving 15 years.

“There is just no reason that she should be (in prison) anymore,” he says. “It doesn’t prove anything.”

McKee says the board heard emotional testimony from both Richards and the victim’s family, and felt Richards “did not come across as a repentant, remorseful, rehabilitated individual.”

As for paroling people on their first request, it does happen — almost half the time, according to Department of Corrections figures.

“We treat each case as an individual case,” McKee says. “You can have almost identical crimes and similar circumstances, but the disposition of one may be different. … I will strongly disagree that we are arbitrary or capricious in how we treat inmates.”

Tomorrow: A look at how parole boards operate in neighboring states. And two days of the parole board: 47 inmates, tears, encouragement, anger and heartbreak

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