HELENA — A legislative panel studying the state parole board voted Friday to draft at least two bills revising or limiting the board’s powers — and some members want to look at even further restrictions and changes.
The Law and Justice Interim Committee wants to draft bills creating more oversight of the Board of Pardons and Parole’s rules and to require audio and perhaps video recording of parole hearings before the board.
The bipartisan committee has been examining parole board procedures for the past year, in the wake of complaints from inmates, their families and others that the board is too arbitrary or restrictive in deciding parole.
If the panel endorses the bills at its final meeting this fall, they would be introduced at the 2015 Legislature.
Some panel members said late Friday they want the committee to consider supporting additional bills, including one that would restrict the conditions the board can place on inmate paroles.
“The feeling is that the parole board is at times arbitrary and capricious in adding terms that are basically a (new) sentence, in order to get a parole,” said Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula.
Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, said the bill also should prevent the board from requiring inmates to admit their guilt, before being paroled: “I think that’s a nonsensical requirement.”
Yet Rep. Mike Lavin, R-Kalispell, said he thinks the board should maintain some flexibility to determine what’s best for the inmate and public safety, when granting paroles.
“The ultimate goal here is public safety,” he said. “I see where they’ve kept that in mind. I appreciate what the parole board does.”
The board currently has broad discretion in deciding parole for inmates, including what conditions they must meet to gain parole.
Hill also said she’d like to consider a bill that would give the governor power to grant pardons or clemency to prison inmates, regardless of what the parole board recommends.
Under current law, the governor cannot grant pardons or clemency to an inmate if the board recommends against it, in a non-death penalty case.
Earlier this month, the board decided not to consider clemency in the highly publicized case of convicted murderer Barry Beach, who’d asked to have his life-in-prison-without-parole sentence commuted so he could be considered for parole.
Gov. Steve Bullock had supported Beach’s petition for clemency, but because the board wouldn’t consider it, the governor could not act on it.
Board Chairman Mike McKee, who attended part of Friday’s committee meeting, said afterwards the parole board should maintain its discretion when deciding parole, so it can consider public safety and the unique qualities of each potential parolee.
Sen. Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell, who sponsored the bill that led to the committee’s study, said Friday the most important proposal is to place some limits on what the board can require inmates to do before they’re paroled.
“I think if the person has done everything they can to obtain parole and the (prison) counselors say they’re good, than it’s time to move them on, and treat them like the citizens we want them to be,” he said. “We’re mostly talking about nonviolent offenders.”