Ohio's Parole Board undergoes sweeping reforms to increase transparency, fairness

Offenders eligible for parole will now be allowed to take part in their hearings before the full board and such meetings will be livestreamed online to the public


Jeremy Pelzer
Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio Parole Board, criticized in recent months for having a secretive and arbitrary decision-making process, will become more open under a long list of reforms announced by Gov. Mike DeWine on Wednesday.

For the first time, offenders eligible for parole will be allowed to take part in their hearings before the full board, and such meetings will soon be livestreamed online to the public, according to a DeWine release.

In addition, all parole board members will be required to undergo training on legal updates, interviewing skills, and effective communication. State prison agency staff will also receive training “to improve their understanding of the parole hearing process,” according to the release.

Other reforms are aimed at improving the parole board’s decision-making process. Before an inmate’s parole hearing, board members will have to meet with prison agency staff for “first-hand feedback” on the inmate’s conduct and rehabilitation progress.

The parole board will also do more to weigh the seriousness of any infractions a potential parolee has on their prison record. Right now, the board treats all infractions the same when considering parole, whether the violations are minor or serious.

Another reform seeks to streamline the parole process in cases where there are no objections to an inmate’s release. Inmates recommended for parole by the board will no longer automatically head to a full board hearing, though a full hearing will still take place if requested by the victim, the victim’s family, victims’ services staff, or the board chair.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction will create a program to offer volunteer “navigators” to help guide inmates through their parole hearing process. The DRC will also set up a new reentry program to offer parolees appropriate life skills, based on the age of the inmate.

The DeWine administration will recommend legislation to the Ohio General Assembly to strengthen victims’ rights by giving victims access to their offenders’ Institutional Summary Report, which shows the inmate’s disciplinary record as well as his or her participation in activities such as school, job training and treatment.

Finally, DRC Director Annette Chambers-Smith announced she has made appointments to fill three of the four open seats on the nine-member board. The appointments include state Rep. Glenn Holmes, a Trumbull County Democrat; Lisa Hoying, an assistant Clark County prosecutor; and Steven Herron, the assistant state public defender for the Ohio Public Defender Commission and president of the Vermilion City Council.

Serving on the Ohio Parole Board is a full-time job that pays $42.19 per hour.

The above policy reforms are expected to be implemented within the coming months, according to the release. Chambers-Smith plans to soon fill the remaining open seat on the parole board with someone with a background in mental health or addiction counseling.

In a statement, Chambers-Smith said these changes “are only the beginning.”

She added: "I am confident that our agency has crafted an all-inclusive reform effort that will keep the communities safe and create fairness for those in our institutions, while still ensuring that the voices of victims are given meaningful consideration in the process.”

The Ohio Parole Board has come under heightened scrutiny since January, when former board member Shirley Smith criticized it as a “secret society” whose decisions were “frighteningly unfair.”

Smith accused board members of, among other things, making decisions on inmates’ futures using inconsistent, biased or racist reasoning, often after missing hearings or being distracted by food or other work. She also noted that the board mostly consists of white ex-parole officers and argued that the board should also include mental-health professionals and current or former lawmakers who can communicate with the legislature about the need for law changes.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Smith didn’t immediately offer comment on the changes, saying she hadn’t yet read them yet.

DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said that the reforms were taken because of a variety of issues and concerns, not just those raised by any single person.

The DeWine administration’s reforms don’t address all the criticisms launched against the Ohio Parole Board – such as that the parole board is not required to provide a detailed reasoning about why it denied parole to an inmate.

Tierney said that particular issue wasn’t raised during discussions about this new set of reforms, but he added that he anticipates that there will be more parole board changes made in the future.

“The governor would say that this is just the beginning,” Tierney said.

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©2019 Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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