The woman cries, twisting a piece of paper in her hands.
“I beg of you to make my children his last victims,” she tells the Idaho Commission for Pardons and Parole.
Not looking at her, the prisoner responds in a gentle, cloying voice.
He wasn’t trying to harass the children with his letters and phone calls from prison, he explains. There were reasons for each call. Property to be picked up. Letters back and forth.
Convicted of lewd and lascivious conduct, William Lightner has served his minimum term and wants to be paroled.
A few minutes later, the commission’s decision is announced: no parole.
Commission Executive Director Olivia Craven tells the 35-year-old inmate that his next chance won’t come for five more years. “We’ll see you then,” she says.
Idaho’s parole system excels at this - keeping the worst offenders behind bars. While other states have cookie-cutter rules that require a prisoner to be let out after serving a certain percentage of his sentence, Idaho gives its five parole commissioners broad discretion to keep dangerous criminals locked up longer.
But when it comes to moving lesser offenders out on parole, the system doesn’t work as well. With Idaho’s prisons overflowing, the parole pipeline can back up because of sheer numbers and logistics, restrictive state laws and scarce resources.
Idaho’s system also sets parolees up for weeks, months or even years longer in the prison system if they fail. The risk is so great that a couple of inmates every month decline to even try. They’d rather serve their time, then go free without strict parole conditions that could send them back to prison.
State prison records show that about 30 percent of Idaho inmates - more than 1,200 - have served more than their minimum term. That means they weren’t paroled at their earliest possible release date.
Troy Rockwell, a Spokane man serving time in Boise for drug possession, went before the parole board recently without success. The board said he could seek parole again in two years, but his maximum sentence is up in three.
“The board said come back in ‘99,” Rockwell said. “I basically said, ‘Nah.”’
Who gets out?
In long hearings at prisons throughout the state, Idaho’s parole commission meets each month to hear from inmates, victims, lawyers and prison officials to decide who gets out.
“We don’t have any halfway houses or any other way to transition an inmate from the correctional system back into society,” said Commissioner Russell Newcomb, a retired Twin Falls surgeon and former Republican state legislator. “My goal is to get that individual out so he or she never comes back into the system again, and to provide them with the tools they need.”
The commission grants parole about 60 percent of the time. Half of those who get out on parole are sent back to prison because they fail to comply with all of the conditions, which can range from staying out of bars to paying fines to obeying laws.
“It disturbs me that we have as many as we do coming back,” said Craven. “We used to be lower.”
A dozen years ago, Idaho’s violation rate hit a low of 25 percent, Craven said. But now the state is up with the rest of the country or higher. In 1995, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 40 percent of parolees nationwide flunked and went back to prison.
But in most states, the implications aren’t as severe.
In Idaho, when a parole violator goes back behind bars, the clock is turned back to the day he left. All of the time spent on parole is lost and must be served again in prison.
For Hugh Enno, a Pocatello father of three, that’s meant the one- to five-year sentence he began serving in 1992 for drunken driving is now stretching toward eight years in the prison system.
Enno lost three successful years, during which he held down a job and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. A family crisis and a relapse later, he was caught driving drunk and went back to prison. Now his sentence is up in the year 2000.
Three out of four states that have parole allow credit for successful time, even if the inmate later violates, said the American Probation and Parole Association.
A study by the Association of Paroling Authorities notes that states like Idaho “stand to gain in terms of potential deterrence and public safety.” But it adds, “Nonetheless, these same jurisdictions purchase this benefit by adding very significant and expensive prison inmate days to the corrections system.”
An eighth of Idaho’s prisoners are parole violators.
Can’t afford to let them go
A lack of money also delays the release of some inmates on parole.
They fall into two groups: inmates who want to be paroled to other states, where they may have families, homes and jobs waiting; and inmates who can’t get into programs that could improve their chances at parole.
Newcomb estimates that four to five inmates a month are denied parole because the state can’t afford to parole them to other states.
Idaho can do that through interstate agreements. But the state has to agree to bring the inmate back if he violates parole.
“The state only gave us $10,000 to do that,” said Newcomb. That’s for the whole year, for all parolees. “We can use that up in a matter of a month, with the prisoners we’ve got out.”
State corrections officials are pushing for more money in next year’s budget to allow out-of-state paroles.
“We see people who have solid plans, we have relatives in the room, family support, all the documentation, but we have to turn them down,” Newcomb said. “It’s something I see quite often.”
Commissioners are more likely to grant an inmate parole if he shows that he’s trying to improve himself. That means taking classes, participating in counseling or holding down a job while in prison.
But sometimes the classes have waiting lists or just aren’t available. Competition for prison jobs is stiff.
Work, counseling and education are more available to inmates who earn medium or minimum custody classifications through good behavior in prison. Custody classifications are based on a formula that takes into account the crime committed and the inmate’s behavior in prison.
Maximum-security inmates have fewer opportunities, but the prisons still offer some limited education and counseling.
“There is something for every inmate to do,” Craven said. “Your behavior in prison says something about your behavior on the outside.”
Scott Dawes, a 20-year-old Post Falls man serving a one- to three-year term for drug possession, got the benefit of the doubt. Held at the maximum-security prison in Boise because of an early disciplinary violation, he didn’t have access to all the classes, counseling and job programs offered at other facilities.
So Dawes read self-help books.
A prison social worker told the board he was on the waiting list for programs, and his parents testified that prison seems to have persuaded him to change his attitude and think about his future.
Noting “good family support,” the parole commission gave Dawes a tentative parole date during its June hearing contingent on his successfully completing an anger management class.
Although nearly all inmates see the parole commission by the time they’ve served their minimum term, some may be delayed because of Idaho’s overcrowded prison system.
More than 200 inmates are backed up in county jails because the state has no cells for them. Those inmates won’t get a parole hearing until they get to prison.
“We were not successful when we paroled from county jails,” Craven said. “The judge sent them to prison for a reason. The judge wants them to experience prison.”
Parole board discretion
Idaho officials say the best thing about Idaho’s parole system is the case-by-case discretion that’s left to the commission.
They point to a notorious California case as an example of what they want to avoid.
Richard Allen Davis, who murdered young Polly Klass, was denied parole four times. But then California switched to a system that automatically released Davis because he’d served 50 percent of his sentence. That gave him the chance to commit the murder.
Gov. Phil Batt wants to give the Idaho commission even more authority.
“The parole board people are extremely sensitive about releasing someone who is a menace to society, who is a violent criminal or a sex offender,” Batt said.
He’s proposed more latitude for the commission in releasing prisoners who don’t have homes and jobs waiting, and more probation and parole officers to give commissioners confidence that someone is watching parolees.
But the most fundamental change Batt is proposing would allow the commission to decide how much time to dock a parole violator when he is sent back to prison.
Craven said commissioners would love to have that flexibility, particularly when it comes to people whose violations are technical. That means they violated conditions of their parole, such as attending classes or staying sober, but didn’t commit a new crime.
“If they abscond or they commit a new crime, that’s a whole different ball game,” she said.
All of Batt’s proposed parole changes are designed to allow the parole board to let certain offenders out of prison sooner.
But Batt stopped short of calling for any inmate to be paroled before serving his full minimum term, regardless of behavior in prison or anything else.
“We don’t do that in Idaho,” he said.
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