HELENA — Proposals to tweak the state parole board and revise its authority over executive clemency arrive at the Legislature this week — and supporters hope they find bipartisan support.
“I feel like these bills are a way to make (the board) more transparent and increase trust in the parole board, to make sure they can do their job well,” said Rep. Jenny Eck, D-Helena. “This doesn’t strike me as a partisan issue.”
But it is a highly emotional issue, expected to draw many people to the Capitol the next two weeks, as the bills are heard before the House Judiciary Committee, starting Thursday.
Relatives of prison inmates, crime victims, prosecutors, defense attorneys and supporters of convicted murderer Barry Beach have debated the changes during a legislative study the past 18 months — and probably will testify on at least some of the bills.
The Board of Pardons and Parole, which decides inmate paroles and whether a prisoner’s sentence may be commuted, has been criticized by some for being too strict or having too much discretion and power.
Eck is sponsoring two of five parole board-related bills up for hearing the next two weeks, including one requiring the board to videotape its proceedings.
Other bills would subject parole board rules to more scrutiny, allow the governor to remove the chair of the board, and give the governor more power over clemency hearings and decisions.
The last one may be the most controversial, prompted in part by the case of Beach, who’s been in prison most of the past 30 years for a 1979 murder he says he didn’t commit.
The parole board has repeatedly rejected Beach’s appeals for clemency, most recently last year when it refused to have a hearing on whether to commute Beach’s life sentence so he could be considered for parole.
Under current law, if the board rejects a hearing or recommends against clemency in a non-death-penalty case, the governor cannot consider the case.
House Bill 43, sponsored by Rep Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, allows the governor to order the board to hold a hearing on specific cases and decide a clemency request in a non-death-penalty case whether the board recommends against it or not.
MacDonald said the well-publicized Beach case has drawn attention to the issue, but isn’t the only example.
MacDonald said she’s heard from a woman whose boyfriend was sent to prison for statutory rape for having consensual sex with her when she was 15. The couple got married after he was released from prison, have four children, and are upstanding members of the community — but the parole board wouldn’t recommend clemency for him to clear his record, MacDonald said.
“He’s a completely upstanding citizen (but) he cannot get a job; he’s a registered sex offender,” she said.
Under HB43, the governor could order the case to be heard and grant clemency, regardless of the board’s recommendation.
While the proposals had bipartisan support from an interim committee that studied the issue, MacDonald said she’s unsure how they’ll fare before the House Judiciary Committee, which has many new members and a 12-9 Republican majority.
Rep. Jerry Bennett, R-Libby, who chairs the panel, said the Republican caucus has many “extremely independent people,” and that he’ll be listening closely to the testimony on the bills.
Former parole board Chairman Mike McKee and board staff spoke against some of the proposals last year, but McKee resigned last month and the board has a new executive director, Timothy Allred.
Allred said Tuesday the parole board has no strong objections to the proposals and probably won’t oppose them: “These are all things that we can deal with and work on.”
The governor’s office hasn’t taken a position on the bills, but will monitor them and provide “informational testimony” as needed, said spokesman Mike Wessler.
MacDonald said she thinks the proposed changes are “pretty modest,” and merely create a “more fair, accountable and transparent structure within which the board can operate effectively.”