HELENA – Montana’s parole system needs reform, critics said Thursday, because its unrealistic and sometimes onerous rules are keeping too many people needlessly behind bars.
“We need to really work to getting this whole thing changed, because the heartache out there is just beyond comprehension,” said former state Sen. Greg Hinkle of Thompson Falls, who has worked with families of inmates preparing to leave prison.
He said the state Board of Pardons and Parole sometimes imposes unattainable conditions on inmates eligible for parole, making it difficult or impossible for them to get out of prison.
Hinkle and several others spoke Thursday before the Law and Justice Interim Committee, which is preparing to study the state Parole Board and its practices.
Not everyone who spoke Thursday, however, said the board and parole system need an overhaul.
Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan of Kalispell, a prosecutor for nearly 30 years, said the Parole Board does a good job evaluating whether prisoners are good candidates for parole, and that he sees no need for major reforms.
“Those who are denied (parole) have not demonstrated they are able to be released safely,” he said. “In my opinion, the Parole Board has … served the state of Montana admirably.”
Pete Lawrenson of Missoula, a recent appointee to the Parole Board, also told the committee that the board takes a close look at the nature of the crimes committed by an inmate and whether the inmate “has been given the tools” to keep from reoffending.
“It’s absolutely the goal of the members of the Board of Pardons and Parole … to release a person as soon as we can – as long as the safety of the community is paramount,” Lawrenson said.
The committee has yet to define the scope of its study. On Thursday, it asked staff to research the discretion and authority of the Parole Board to impose conditions on potential parolees.
The Parole Board, whose members are appointed by the governor, reviews the cases of hundreds of inmates from the state prison system each year for possible parole.
If it approves the parole, it also creates conditions for parolees, who can be sent back to prison – or withheld from ever leaving – if they don’t meet those conditions.
The 2013 Legislature passed a bill directing a study of the board, to examine its impact on Montana’s prison population and to come back to the 2015 Legislature with any recommended changes.
Moe Wosepka, the director of prison ministries for the Roman Catholic diocese in Helena, said Thursday that parolees are told they must have an approved place to live before they get out, but then sometimes aren’t given a definite release date, making it hard to find housing.
“There isn’t anyone who is going to hold an apartment for 30 days or an undetermined amount of time for a guy who is getting out of prison,” he said.
Former state Sen. Chris Christiaens of Great Falls also told the panel that some inmates who are paroled sit in prison for months or years more, because they can’t get a job or placement in a program that the Parole Board has required.
“I worked with a young man who sat for two years to wait for a parole,” Christiaens said. “He had no family, no support, no work experience and no money. We worked to help get him a job, and that’s the only way he ever got released. How many people have been granted a parole, and are still sitting there (in prison)?”