Ohio Parole Board member quits, calls agency toxic and secretive

Cleveland Democrat Shirley Smith resigned her post on the Ohio Parole Board, saying the agency is dysfunctional, secretive and toxic.

Smith, a former lawmaker who pushed through sentencing reforms, spent three years on the 12-member board but gave up the $90,000-a-year job on Dec. 31.

When she was appointed to the Parole Board in February 2015 by the Kasich administration, Smith said she quickly learned “it would be a long, bumpy ride while navigating a complex system of make-up-as-you-go policies and procedures that were not neither principled nor consistent. In my opinion and experience, the Ohio Parole Board chooses to operate as a secret society based on college roommate friendships, tenure and positions held within the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and members’ desire to maintain absolute power.”

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In a four-page opinion column distributed to Ohio media, Smith blamed DRC Court and Community director Cynthia Mausser for driving members off the board with “her scheming machinations.”

Mausser, who served on the board from 2001 to 2015 and now oversees the board, was not made available for response to Smith’s allegations.

Instead, Ohio DRC issued a written statement that said parole board rules and policies are public and the department encourages employee suggestions. Additionally, state law and the constitution give crime victims certain rights in the parole process. Parole board members who meet statutory requirements are selected.

“Director nominee Chambers-Smith will be looking to add members who will create an inclusive and diverse board. In addition, she intends to conduct a comprehensive review of board policies and procedures and welcomes input from any and all stakeholders,” the statement said.

The Parole Board has discretion over the release or retention of prisoners sentenced before a major state law change in 1996 and over roughly 3,200 inmates sentenced to life terms after 1996 for murder and sex crimes against children. It also reviews clemency requests and makes recommendations to the governor.

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Board members, who are appointed by the Ohio DRC director, interview parole eligible inmates via video conference. Hearings and deliberations are closed but decisions are public records. In 2017, members were paid between $90,300 and $115,600 in salaries.

Gov. Mike DeWine’s press secretary Dan Tierney said the governor “has full faith in the director to address issues that arise at DRC. Obviously, this is a new administration and we’re just getting started.”

DeWine’s nominee for prisons director Annette Chambers-Smith has yet to be confirmed by the Ohio Senate.

Bret Vinocur of BlockParole.com, which seeks to prevent release of the “worst of the worst,” said he agrees with much of Smith’s criticism.

“We have no idea how to determine what criteria they’re using to make parole decisions,” said Vinocur, of Columbus, a citizen advocate for the past 17 years. “It’s a crap shoot. You just don’t know.”

Prisoners who go before the board say its decisions are irrational, often based on subjective and unknown criteria and sometimes based on inaccurate information.

Pickaway Correctional Inmate Bernard Keith, representing himself, took a case to the Ohio Supreme Court. In 2014, he successfully argued that the parole board acted on inaccurate information. The 6-1 decision, which reversed the 10th District Court of Appeals, held that the parole board is obligated to be sure the records used to make decisions are reasonably accurate and pertinent.

A review of Ohio Parole Board annual reports shows on average over the past eight years, parole is granted in about 10 percent of the hearings.

Vinocur explains the low rate this way: “They have paroled all the low hanging fruit. The guys in there now are horrific. Go look at the cases, they’re horrible.”

Smith, who resigned Dec. 31, recommended the following reforms:

Establish a task force to independently review the board practices and policies and recommend changes that will bring more accountability and transparency;

Add members with more diverse backgrounds, rather than loading the board with people with criminal justice resumes and hire a more racially diverse staff;

Separate the board from the prison department;

Prohibit members from voting on parole decisions if they didn’t participate in the hearings; and set clear policies for clemency considerations.

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