The number of inmates being paroled from Kansas prisons has not changed since the state eliminated the Kansas Parole Board on July 1, 2011, a review of parole records shows.
From January 2010 through September 2012, inmates sat through a total of 916 parole hearings hoping to win their freedom.
Of the 517 decisions that went before the Parole Board from January 2010 through June 2011, 32.7 percent resulted in parole.
Of the 399 decisions before the Prisoner Review Board from July 2011 through September 2012, 31.8 percent resulted in parole.
The figures come from minutes of parole and review board hearings that were provided to The Wichita Eagle under a Kansas Open Records request.
Skeptics of the change said at the time that turning the parole process over to the Kansas Department of Corrections could lead to the premature release of prisoners to ease overcrowding. Others were concerned that the move would create a potential conflict of interest.
Roger Werholtz, who retired as secretary of corrections in December 2010, is among the skeptics.
“I thought that eliminating the Parole Board was a bad idea, not so much because I thought there was going to be any kind of change in decision making,” he said. “If it’s department employees making the release decisions, my fear was that would open the department up for criticism.
“I just thought it was a better idea to have the decisions made by somebody who was independent of the department.”
Former Parole Board member Tom Sawyer, who is now a state legislator, agreed.
“It doesn’t look good, regardless of how it operates,” he said. “It’s an inherent conflict of interest.”
Dave Riggin, administrator of the Review Board, said he had similar reservations when he was asked to sit on the new board. He said he’s since changed his mind. Whether it’s a parole board reporting to the governor or a review board reporting to the secretary of corrections, he said, there will be those who will question the motives for parole decisions. He said he’s confident that the Prisoner Review Board has based its decisions on public safety.
“I have had no pressure from the secretary or from the governor whatsoever,” he said.
The parole decisions
The minutes from the parole hearings give some insight into the thinking that went into making the 916 parole decisions, which involved 705 inmates, some of whom had more than one hearing during the time period in question. The prison records available on the Department of Corrections website provide an idea of the type of inmates the parole and review boards must deal with.
The 705 inmates collectively were responsible for 154 counts of first-degree murder, which was the most common charge for those who appeared before the parole and review boards from 2010 through 2012. The next most common charges were robbery (112), burglary (89), aggravated sodomy (63), kidnapping (56) and second-degree murder (56).
Since the Kansas Sentencing Guidelines went into effect in 1993, most criminal defendants have received determinate sentences that require them to serve a set number of months before automatically being released on post-release supervision. That means the vast majority of the state’s more than 8,000 inmates will be released without a parole hearing.
In addition to holding parole hearings, the Prisoner Review Board holds hearings for inmates who contest allegations that they have violated conditions of their parole.
Department of Corrections spokesman Jeremy Barclay said only inmates serving indeterminate sentences imposed before the guidelines were enacted and inmates serving life sentences are required to win the approval of the Review Board before being released.
“The pool of offenders whose release is contingent upon a favorable decision by the board basically remains individuals who have served very long sentences for very serious offenses,” he said.
The 196 inmates who were paroled from prison from 2010 through 2012 included 19 who were serving life sentences for first-degree murder, 20 who were convicted of second-degree murder and five for voluntary manslaughter. There were 10 others convicted of attempted murder or conspiracy to commit murder.
The 196 freed inmates were responsible for 88 counts of robbery, 49 counts of aggravated assault or aggravated battery, 29 counts of kidnapping and 53 counts of burglary. They were convicted of 25 counts of rape, 21 counts of aggravated sodomy and 14 counts of indecent liberties with a child. There were 51 drug convictions.
Perhaps more telling than the nature of the crimes is the fact that the 196 inmates had a total of 701 parole revocations – an average of 3.6 parole revocations per inmate. Werholtz said he wasn’t surprised to hear about the high revocation rate.
“Those are high-risk people and you would expect them to fail more frequently” than most parolees, he said.
Although the majority of the paroled inmates had multiple parole violations, the Kansas Department of Corrections has been cited in recent years for its work in reducing recidivism rates among parolees.
The Council of State Government’s Justice Center released a report in September that said Kansas was one of four states that reported significant declines in three-year recidivism rates based on data tracking individuals released in 2005 and 2007. Kansas’ rate fell by 15 percent, second only to Michigan, the report said. The report lauded the state for beefing up efforts to supervise parolees while doing a better of filling their needs.
A 2011 Pew Center report, “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” said Kansas was second only to Oregon in reducing its recidivism rate when comparing rates between 1999 and 2007.
Succeeding on parole involves a lot more than obeying Kansas Department of Corrections rules, according to one recent parolee who has been staying at the Union Rescue Mission since his release in October. He said he arrived on a bus from the Lansing Correctional Facility with $150 in cash and the clothes on his back — a state-issued shirt, jeans and boots. He said the biggest problem for parolees, especially those who aren’t veterans, is finding a job,
The parolee, who asked not to be identified by name, said that like many parolees, he receives $200 a month in food stamps. Many parolees sell the stamps on the streets for 50 cents on the dollar, he said.
Denny Bender, executive director of the Union Rescue Mission, said about 120 men were staying at the shelter last week. He said 30 to 40 percent were parolees.
Fred Debes, who retired in December after 24 years as a parole officer, said there has been a strong effort in recent years to reduce the number of parolees going back to prison. A decade ago, he said, a paroled drug offender who failed a drug test could expect a quick trip back to prison. Now, he said, parole officers will work to get the offender into a drug treatment program that works. A decade ago, Debes said, a parolee who “absconds” – breaks contact with his parole officer and cannot be found – could also expect a quick trip back to prison. That’s not necessarily so any more.
One of the potential problems of the new policy may have been demonstrated Tuesday morning in the 1200 block of West McCormick, when a Wichita man went outside to warm up his van as he prepared to take his pregnant wife to the hospital. Wichita police said the idling van was stolen and later totaled during a police chase. The suspect in the case, Steve Percival, was a 36-year-old parolee who had four abscond warrants on his record since his release in February 2011 after serving time for robbery and attempted burglary.
Debes said there is no formula that predicts which parolees will succeed on parole and which will revert to crime.
“If he adopts the philosophy that ‘I am never going to commit another crime that sends me back to prison,’ that individual is going to be successful,” he said. “I think it’s a personal decision that every individual has to make.”