Parole releases decline substantially in Ohio

Over the past 16 years, the number of inmates released on parole each year has dropped from thousands to dozens and just 8,793 prisoners remain under the Ohio Parole Board’s jurisdiction, according to a new report from the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee.

In 1998, 5,488 prisoners were paroled and in 2013, 61 were paroled after serving on average 18 years in prison.

Two decades ago, Ohio overhauled its criminal sentencing laws. Historically, the parole board oversaw the possible releases of inmates convicted of an array of crimes after they’d served their minimum sentences. That changed for new convicts in 1996, when a law change eliminated parole eligibility for most offenders, imposing flat-time sentences instead of a minimum-to-maximum range.

Inmates sentenced under the old law continue to be parole-eligible, but officials say most nonviolent criminals have been paroled or otherwise released since 1996, leaving only the worst cases. In making release decisions, the parole board must consider: the nature of the offense, inmate conduct in prison, whether the inmate is prepared for release and community opinion. The board can consider any other factor it deems relevant.

Parole-eligible inmates include 4,635 who were sentenced for murder or aggravated murder and 2,043 who are serving time for rape.

Inmates who are “flopped” — given no release — by the parole board complain bitterly that the board is secretive, uses inaccurate data and ignores participation in rehabilitative programs. A year ago, inmate Bernard Keith won a 6-1 decision from the Ohio Supreme Court which held that the parole board is obligated to be sure that the records it uses to make decisions are reasonably accurate and pertinent. Keith, who represented himself in the case, said the parole board had been using inaccurate records to decide his case. Even after the board updated the records, it still flopped him, he said.

Former inmate Tim Richardson, who is working for parole board reforms, said the parole board too often looks only at the severity of the crime and the original charges and doesn’t give enough weight to rehabilitative programs completed by inmates seeking parole.

The CIIC also reported that twice as many crime victims are now participating in the parole hearings, which may be influencing parole board decisions on whether to release inmates.

Legislators passed “Roberta’s Law” in 2013 which requires the state to notify crime victims of upcoming parole hearings if the inmate was convicted of murder or a serious violent offense.

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