Gov. Mike DeWine is taking steps to change how the Ohio Parole Board does business, making it more transparent, adding new members from different backgrounds, improving training and ordering new guidelines for how the board weighs inmate misconduct.
“The reforms of the Parole Board are a work in progress. There is going to be more besides what we are announcing today,” he said, adding that he is working with state lawmakers are changes.
DeWine said his administration is appointing three new members — a public defender, a prosecutor and a state lawmaker —to the board.
“Number one reform, I think, is diversifying the parole board, getting people with different experiences in there,” DeWine told the Dayton Daily News.
At the end of last year, Shirley Smith, a former state senator from Cleveland, resigned from the Ohio Parole Board and issued a public rebuke, calling the system toxic and secretive. She also said the board is over weighted with members whose careers have been focused on the prison system.
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DeWine said his reforms are a result of Smith’s criticism as well as an investigation by this newspaper about how the system operates.
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The board is being sued by the Ohio Justice & Policy Center and ACLU of Ohio and facing criticism from some state lawmakers, including state Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, who has promised to introduce legislation to change the system.
DeWine said his plans include: allowing inmates to participate in full board hearings via video conferencing; live streaming those hearings, except when crime victims request that their statements be excluded; giving crime victims access to inmate institutional summaries; increasing communication between prison staff and the board regarding inmate behavior; developing guidelines for the board about how to weigh minor misconduct versus major rule infractions by inmates up for parole; better tailoring re-entry programs to focus on lifeskills; and formalizing training for board members to include effective interviewing and communication skills.
Up to 12 people are appointed to the parole board by the director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Annette Chambers-Smith. The job pays more than $100,000 a year.
Chambers-Smith is appointing state Rep. Glenn Holmes, D-McDonald, Clark County Assistant Prosecutor Lisa Hoying, and Steve Herron, an assistant public defender for the Ohio Public Defender Commission. Chambers-Smith is seeking a fourth appointee who has a background in mental health or addiction counseling.
“These are good first steps that move Ohio in the right direction in terms of parole reform. We still need legislation to accomplish more substantive reforms, like presumptive parole,” said attorney David Singleton, director of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center. “But I applaud Gov. DeWine, DRC Director Annette Chambers-Smith and Parole Board Chair Tracye Thalheimer for doing what they can, without new legislation, to improve the system.”
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.
Related: Parole releases decline in Ohio
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.