Ohio parole board under fire from victims, inmates and lawmakers

12-person board responsible for nearly 9,000 inmates operates largely in the dark.

The powerful Ohio Parole Board operates largely behind closed doors: Initial hearings are not open to the public. Records are kept secret. Full board meetings are open to the public but debate and votes are conducted behind closed doors.

In the wake of a public rebuke by former Parole Board member Shirley Smith, the system is now facing scrutiny. Critics, including crime victims, inmates and attorneys, say it needs reforms.

New Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Annette Chambers-Smith said after talking with inmates, parolees, crime victims, lawyers, lawmakers and others, she believes change is needed, including additional transparency.

» RELATED: Ohio Parole Board member quits, calls agency secretive and toxic

“We focus a lot on the jots and box checking and the process. There is a lot to it that’s just about the people involved: offenders, victims, the community. It’s a lot about people and there hasn’t been enough about people — it’s been more about procedures.”

Critics say the board needs to be more transparent.

“Lack of transparency is a huge problem. Because of it, they get away with all kinds of things behind closed doors, making proving their wrongdoing impossible. The lack of transparency also breeds an insular culture. Culture is rotten to the core,” said attorney David Singleton of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center. “We need hearings recorded and made public. That will require a law change.”

Serious time for minor offenses

When an inmate goes to the Ohio Parole Board to ask for release, he or she better not have swiped any fruit from the chow hall, stolen a can of pop or stashed too many bags of chips in his cell.

Tickets for misconduct – even for minor infractions – are held against them.

“Almost always, minor tickets carry a lot of weight,” said Smith, who resigned Dec. 31 and blasted the board as a secretive, toxic system. “Tickets for towels hanging on the bed, taking food from chow hall …that sort of thing carries too much weight to the point of ridiculousness.”

Chambers-Smith said misconduct is an indicator of whether someone will follow the rules outside of prison. “If you can’t behave in prison, what makes you think you’ll behave when you are free?”

» RELATED:DeWine names first woman to lead Ohio prison system

Chambers-Smith, who became DRC director in February, defended the board members, saying they’re earnestly trying to make the best decisions for public safety.

“They truly believe they’re doing a service and that’s what keeps them doing it when everyone is mad at them. Because at any given moment you have the victims, prosecutors, defense, the inmates and their families and everyone all second guessing every decision. But the fact of the matter is they’re following the law and they’re really doing the best that they can in making a decision that keeps us safe,” she said.

Chambers-Smith said she is appointing four new members with more diverse resumes, asking outside experts to review practices and recommend reforms, and examining where the system can be more transparent.

Board responsible for thousands of Ohio inmates

The board has discretion over whether nearly 9,000 inmates should be released: 3,900 inmates sentenced before July 1, 1996 – so-called ‘old law’ inmates before Ohio’s truth-in-sentencing law mandated definitive sentences – and nearly 5,000 inmates serving life sentences for serious crimes such as murder.

Between 2011 and October 2018, the parole board granted release for 1,076 inmates out of the 10,575 hearings it held – 10.2 percent.

» RELATED:Changes may help more state prisoners get parole

Kurran Washington, 46, a Dayton man serving 18 to 50 years for aggravated robbery and involuntary manslaughter, has been denied parole in 2007, 2009, 2013, 2016 and 2019, according to Parole Board minutes.

Reasons for denial have included the seriousness of the crime as well as misconduct tickets. In 2013, the board minutes note that Washington’s co-defendant shot the carjacking victim — something the board counted against Washington. In 2019, the board said strong community opposition as well as his behavior factored into the decision to keep him in prison for another three years.

“I don’t know what it is they see or what they’ve heard. I’m not privy to it. So I’m completely in the dark on it,” he said in a telephone call from Pickaway Correctional Institution. Washington said he has received two conduct tickets in the past decade, one for contraband hidden in his mattress and one for possession of two stolen cans of soda pop.

Inmate Bernard Keith, also incarcerated at Pickaway Correctional, said he received a misconduct ticket for having “excess commissary” – too many bags of chips and cookies. The parole board noted his misconduct record and eight previous unsuccessful paroles as reasons he isn’t suitable for release. In 2017, he was given an additional three years in prison.

“Offender takes no responsibility for any of his actions, he has no insight into his behavior,” the board minutes said of Keith in 2012.

Keith is well known to the board. Representing himself, he sued the board and won a ruling in 2014 from the Ohio Supreme Court that held the parole board is obligated to be sure that the records it uses to make decisions are reasonably accurate and pertinent. Keith said he believes the parole board members are holding his lawsuit against him.

Kettering state Sen. Peggy Lehner pushing for reforms

After advocating for parole for Tyra Patterson, state Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, became disgusted with the lack of transparency by the board. Patterson won parole on Christmas Day in 2017, after serving 22 years for a murder Patterson says she didn’t commit.

» RELATED:Parole rates decline substantially in OhioWoman convicted of murder in Dayton teen’s slaying will be released on parole

Lehner said when she and former state senator Shannon Jones spoke to the parole board on Patterson’s behalf, they weren’t well received. “It was like ‘stay in your lane.’ As far as they were concerned this wasn’t our lane.”

Now Lehner said she will push for reforms, including shifting to “presumptive parole” – making release an automatic once the minimum years have been served unless there are documented reasons for denial.

Chambers-Smith said “As long as there is policy around it that makes it safe and reasonable, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad idea.”

Lehner also wants more parole documents to be available for release under Ohio’s open records law.

“What went into the decision? What was the basis for the decision. Please explain. At least it would shed some light on this,” Lehner said. “I want more meat on that bone. I want to know specifically what went into the decision.”

Victims’ families are also upset

Others are frustrated with the Ohio Parole Board as well.

In 1974, Debbie Hurst was 21 and the oldest of 10 when her father, Lima Police Officer William Brown, was shot and killed during a gas station robbery. Ross Caudill was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life.

“We were always told we didn’t have to worry and that he was never ever getting out,” Hurst said. But in 1999, Caudill was being considered for parole – forcing the Brown family to organize opposition. Caudill got a five year flop – not the 10-year max continuance.

» RELATED:Parole rates decline substantially in Ohio

Hurst said the parole board treats the inmate like the victim, forces the survivors to re-live the trauma, doesn’t disclose information that goes into its decisions and fails to keep crime victims apprised of developments. “It should be more open. It shouldn’t be so closed that we don’t know what their decisions are based on. It should be open for the inmate’s families and the victim’s families.”

Caudill is currently being considered for parole after nearly 45 years in prison.

April Stine is livid that the Ohio Parole Board decided to release Michael Eckels, who pleaded guilty to shooting her daughter Mia Russell to death in August 1992. Stine said parole board members didn’t seem to pay attention, it took seven months to render a decision and they failed to keep family members apprised.

“The decision was made before we walked in. Whatever we said had no effect,” she said, adding “It’s all secretive. They’re not helpful at all.”

Unwritten rules

Inmate Rhonda Head went into her meeting with the Ohio Parole Board in May 2016 with two job offers, multiple letters of support, a list of programs she had completed and confirmation that her mom and step dad – a retired sheriff’s deputy – would open their home to her. Weeks later, the parole board gave her a five-year flop.

Represented by the Cincinnati-based Ohio Justice & Policy Center and the ACLU of Ohio, Head is now suing the Parole Board, trying to find out what documents and factors board members used to base their decision. Last week, Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Kimberly Cocroft denied DRC’s motion to dismiss the case.

“This is a very positive development in our case. We’re continuing the fight to ensure oversight and reform of the Ohio Parole Board,” said David Carey, a senior attorney at the ACLU of Ohio.

Head’s lawsuit alleges there are unwritten policies in play: the First Flop and Co-Defendant rules. The parole board routinely denies parole to first-time eligible inmates who were convicted of violent crimes, even if the particular inmate didn’t play a violent role, Head’s lawsuit says.

Likewise, when multiple defendants are convicted in the same crime, the first co-defendant to go before the parole board will get a flop so that the board can obtain statements from the co-defendant against the others when they come up for parole, the lawsuit says.

Chambers-Smith said there are no such unwritten rules. “I haven’t seen evidence of that. And I really can’t get into it because obviously it’s an open lawsuit.”

Another unwritten rule that some inmates believe exists: to get parole, the offender must admit guilt and remorse – something that works against those who are wrongfully convicted.

Fairborn man denied parole, released after conviction overturned

Fairborn man R. Dean Gillispie maintained his innocence for decades behind bars. Up for parole in June 2007, he refused to admit guilt or express remorse and the parole board gave him a four-year flop. In December 2011, he was released from prison after a federal judge overturned his conviction.

Related: Gillispie case illustrates imperfect justice system

Ohio Innocence Project Director Mark Godsey, who represented Gillispie and who has worked to exonerate 27 other Ohioans, said innocent people who refuse to admit guilt are penalized by the parole board.

“The parole board assumes every person in front of them is guilty no matter how clear it is now that they are innocent, but that is an outdated notion. They’re living in the 1980s,” Godsey said. “Those who care about criminal justice reform, and those who care about people being treated with fairness and dignity, typically do not have a high opinion of the Ohio Parole Board.”

Board members make more than $100,000 a year

The DRC director appoints up to 12 people to the board. It is a full-time job that pays more than $100,000 a year. Except for the chair and the victim representative, members are limited to two, six-year terms.

Former parole board member Michael Jackson, who was fired in March 2018 after a drunken driving traffic stop, disagrees with Shirley Smith’s criticisms of the system. “I think the process is pretty transparent as it is,” he said.

He also said the prisoners appearing before the parole board are responsible for crimes “worse than anything we’ve seen in horror films.” They must show that they’ve changed and that has to be weighed against the crime, he said.

Chambers-Smith said she agrees with Shirley Smith that the board is dominated by people who came up through the corrections industry and she agrees that it’s time for more diversity. But she said the current members aren’t of one mind.

Parole Board members look at evidence and information to try to decipher who is rehabilitated and who is not, the director said.

“It’s not an easy job at all. I believe their hearts are in the right place and they’re trying to do their very best. If I didn’t believe that, I’d remove them from the board,” Chambers-Smith said.

By the numbers

Nearly 9,000 inmates are under the Parole Board's supervision

1,076 inmates were granted release by the board from2011-2018 out of the 10,575 hearings it held – 10.2 percent.

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