Educating crime victims about parole

By Libby Hamilton
Victim Liaison, Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles

Soon after his appointment as presiding officer in 2015, Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles Chairman David Gutierrez began looking at ways to improve operations within the agency.

Having previously served as the liaison between the Board and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Victim Services Division (VSD), he noted the need for someone to do that job full-time. One of his initiatives was creating a position dedicated to the Victim Liaison Program; that employee’s sole focus is ensuring that victims and survivors receive quality and consistent services from the Board. Thanks to a Victims of Crime Act grant, I was able to join the Board as the victim liaison in February 2017.
            I am writing to educate people in prosecutor’s offices—both attorneys and victim assistance coordinators (VACs)—how I can help them understand the parole process and how you, in turn, can assist crime victims.

Victims’ interactions with parole
I want to first discuss some of the steps we’ve taken to improve a survivor’s experience when they choose to be involved in the parole review process. Chairman Gutierrez wanted someone on staff to concentrate specifically on victims’ interactions with the Board. There are often misconceptions about what it will be like to for a crime victim to speak with parole commissioners and board members, which can lead to anxiety and a more difficult experience. The most common questions we get are, “Will the offender be there?” and “Will I have to testify in a courthouse?” We felt that if we could show victims a Board office and what a Board interview looks like, it could help them feel more prepared and at ease prior to their conversation with the lead voter. This idea led to the production of a 10-minute video that can be found on our website at www.tdcj.texas.gov/bpp/VictimLiaison/VictimLiaisonVideo.html. In addition to what crime victims can expect when speaking to the board, it covers the parole review process, factors the voters consider when making parole decisions, and other valuable information.
            We provide direct services as well. One is accompanying survivors to parole hearings, which allows me to assist and support victims while also observing commissioners and board members to see how they interact with those we serve. I then have concrete examples to provide when training our 21 voters one-on-one regarding best practices when working with victims.

For prosecutors and staff
You may be wondering, “Why do we need to know this? We work in the district attorney’s office!” This is important information for victim services providers in prosecutor offices too. For example, we were recently contacted by the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office and TDCAA’s Training Director with inquiries about training. Such opportunities are very exciting for me, as there is often quite a long time between a defendant’s sentencing and his parole eligibility date (PED), and I’d love the chance to bridge the gap between DA’s offices and the Board of Pardons and Paroles. The Fort Bend County DA’s Office asked me a few questions, including:
            •          How do a prosecutor’s actions affect an offender’s parole eligibility?
            •          What makes a difference to the Board? and
            •          What do victim assistance coordinators (VACs) need to know when trying to prepare survivors for an offender’s potential release on parole?
            In response to the request, I went to Fort Bend County (Richmond), along with our Director of Institutional Parole Operations Tracy Long, Parole Commissioner Marsha Moberley, and Board Administrator Jessica Dillard, to speak with 50 assistant district attorneys and VACs about these very topics. Between the four of us, we could provide a comprehensive look at the parole review process and an overview of Board operations, describe parole hearings from a victim’s perspective, discuss prosecutorial protests, and note the potential consequences of plea bargains on an offender’s parole eligibility. We then facilitated a very engaging Q&A session.
            One common question from prosecutors is, “What does the Board look at when making parole decisions?” Several factors are taken into consideration, including the severity of the offense, the offender’s criminal history, his adjustment during previous periods of probation or parole, his current institutional adjustment, and letters of protest and support. Prosecutors sometimes want to submit documents to protest an offender’s release on parole, and they will ask what they should include. Keep in mind that the voters already have access to information about the offense—they are also interested in receiving personalized feedback on a particular case and offender. Consider telling voters what your involvement was, why you are protesting release, and what is compelling about this specific situation or offender.
            Another important topic of the day was plea bargaining. Believe it or not, I recently received an email from a victim’s family member asking that we “educate and advocate for changes that will protect and bring more satisfaction to victims in the long run.” He wanted to ensure that victims were given all relevant facts about sentencing and parole when prosecutors were telling them about a potential plea offer.
            To elaborate a little on this subject, the parole eligibility date is not the only thing potentially affected by a plea deal. A plea can limit the special conditions the Board can impose when the offender is released on parole and can change the number of years the Board can deny or “set off” an offender until his next parole review. For example, in an intoxication manslaughter case without a deadly weapon finding, the offender will become parole-eligible as soon as his good time plus calendar time equals one-quarter of his sentence. However, if the judgment includes a deadly weapon, the offender will have to serve half of the sentence prior to becoming eligible and will not receive good conduct time. The percentage of a sentence that must be served to reach parole eligibility varies according to the date of the offense and by statute. For more specifics on this topic, look for a publication entitled Parole in Texas on the Board’s website. In the appendix is the entire Parole and Mandatory Supervision Eligibility Chart. It is in the process of being updated, but it can be found at www.tdcj.texas.gov/bpp/publications/PIT_2017_Eng.pdf.

Demystifying the process
The most beneficial thing we can do for victims and survivors is to tell them what they can expect next and be honest in the process. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, but if crime victims are blind-sided—for example, by an offender’s parole eligibility coming right after conviction—they can feel even more victimized. If we can bridge the gap in awareness and education, we can increase victims’ trust in the entire criminal justice system.
            What I ask of you, those in prosecutor offices, is to please make sure victims know that down the road, whether it’s a few weeks or several years post-conviction, there will be plenty of people ready, willing, and able to assist them if they choose to be involved  in the parole review process. Our frequently asked questions for victims can be found at www.tdcj.texas.gov/bpp/VictimLiaison/VictimFAQ.html.
            If you would like additional information about training or any of the topics discussed in this article, please feel free to contact me directly at [email protected] or 512/406-5833. Thank you all for the work you do.