Ohio’s parole rate has plunged below 7 percent as the pool of convicts eligible for parole is now dwindling. But changes are under way that could help prisoners who committed crimes convince the Ohio Parole Board that they deserve freedom.
Parole board Chairwoman Cynthia Mausser said a transformation in the parole-eligible population is largely responsible for a plummeting parole rate: In 2001, 26.2 percent of inmates who went before the board were paroled, and in 2004, it was 48.5 percent.
Last year, the rate was only 6.9 percent.
State prison officials say they’re making changes that could improve inmates’ parole odds, such as coaching them on how to articulate their case for release and working harder to get input from inmates’ supporters, as well as opponents, such as prosecutors and crime victims.
The parole board also is launching a year-long project with the National Institute of Corrections that could lead to greater transparency in the decision-making behind parole denials, called “flops.” And prison officials want board members to have more interaction with rehabilitated parolees so they can see success stories first-hand.
Lisa Maxwell, of Springfield said her brother, Todd Sodders, is a changed man since 1988, when Sodders, then 19, committed robbery, kidnapping and murder in Clark County. Now 45, he has earned a welder’s license, an associate degree, completed programming in prison and has family on the outside to help him. Yet the board flopped him until 2016 four years ago. “It is like they don’t look past (the facts of the crime) for anything,” Maxwell said.
The changes are happening as “truth in sentencing” laws have caused the parole board to all but cease hearing cases involving nonviolent crimes. The nine-member board’s duties include conducting about 150 release hearings per month, most of them for inmates convicted of crimes of violence.
“The people the parole board is seeing right now have some pretty challenging and pretty tough cases, ” said Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. “It is not easy to say, ‘OK, this is enough time for this particular offense.’”
But critics say the parole board has too little accountability, is stacked with members biased against offenders and gives too much weight to the original crime and not enough credit for decades of good behavior and rehabilitative programming. They argue that some longtime prisoners could be productive citizens instead of costing taxpayers $25,000 a year each as inmates.
“The parole board continues, stubbornly, to look primarily at the original crime and its details, rather than at the offender’s programming, rehabilitation and readiness for release,” said Karen Thimmes of the prison reform group CURE-Ohio. “This is absurd -- a waste of taxpayer money and a waste of lives.”
Poll results released in March by the Pew Center for the States shows that Democrats, Republicans and independents alike strongly prefer an earlier release with supervision, even for violent offenders, over freeing convicts unsupervised at the end of their sentences.
Historically, the parole board oversaw the possible releases of inmates convicted of a wide array of crimes after they’d served their minimum sentences. That changed for new convicts in 1996, when the Ohio Legislature adopted a bill that eliminated parole eligibility for most offenders, imposing flat-time sentences instead of a minium-to-maximum range.
Inmates sentenced under the old law continue to be parole-eligible, but officials say most nonviolent criminals have been paroled or otherwise released since 1996, leaving only the worst cases. There are about 4,800 “old law” inmates among Ohio’s 50,000 prison inmates, some of whom have yet to have their first parole hearings. Half of them are killers and another 30 percent are sex offenders.
More than 3,350 “new law” inmates convicted of aggravated murder, murder and sex offenses against minors also fall under the board’s authority.
Mausser said the board since 1975 has been legally obligated to use the same mandatory factors in making parole decisions: the nature of the offense, inmate conduct in prison, whether the inmate is prepared for release and community opinion. There’s also a catch-all clause: The board can consider any other factor it deems relevant.
“We have to balance competing interests. There is no other way to say it,” said Mausser, who formerly worked for the Ohio Public Defender’s office.
Some “old law” inmates have complained about the board to the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, a legislative watchdog group.
The committee provided the Sprinfield News-Sun with letters of complaint, but redacted inmate names.
“If the system is not radically adjusted,” one inmate wrote, “I can only see old law inmates like myself growing old from being readjudicated for ancient history time and again ... with the taxpayers footing the bill for our geriatric care.”
Barry Wilford, a Columbus attorney who specializes in parole cases, said the board too often is capricious in its decision-making, sometimes contradicting its own assessments of a given inmate from one hearing to the next.
“The board doesn’t speak with any institutional force,” Wilford said. “What it means is the board really has no respect for its own prior decisions and that makes it difficult for anybody else to have much respect for their decisions.”
Wilford acknowledged that “Ohio does have our ‘Charlie Mansons’ who should never be released and yet come up periodically for parole review.” But he said changing inmate demographics is no excuse for the parole rate’s sharp decline.
“In July and August of 2011, the board held 160 parole hearings and failed to grant parole in a single case,” Wilford said. “Since many of these inmates were classified at minimum- and medium-security levels, I think that glaring statistic says a lot more about the board than it does about the inmates coming up for parole.”
In late 2011, Ohio lawmakers required the parole board to evaluate all 347 parole-eligible inmates aged 65 and older for possible expedited release, but none was fast-tracked. In a report, the board said the convicts remained dangerous, failed to complete rehabilitative programming or show remorse, had previously violated parole, or committed crimes so vile that it would be an injustice to let them out of prison.
Age and the passage of time don’t necessarily make inmates less dangerous, Mausser said.
Charles Leichty, of Toledo, is serving a life sentence for the 1958 sex-related strangulation murder of a teenage girl. The board report shows he has been paroled numerous times since 1971, most recently in 2006, and molested girls and women every time, causing his return to prison. His next parole hearing is in October 2013.
Ohio is in a year-long National Institute of Corrections study to test a decision-making framework designed by Carleton University in Canada that, combined with individual case assessments, could improve parole outcomes.
Prison officials plan to offer more education to help inmates better understand what to expect from the board and make their case for release.
The board also will do more outreach to learn about offenders from their families and from prison staff.
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