By Libby Hamilton
Director, Victim Liaison Program, Texas Board of Pardons & Paroles
It’s been a few years since I last submitted an article for this very important audience of prosecutors and prosecutor office staff, so I wanted to come back and discuss some topics that I hope will be very helpful to you in your role. I’ll begin by providing a quick background on my “why.”
My work history solely consists of post-conviction victim services—it’s all I know! I started in 2007 with the Victim Services Division (VSD) of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), which is a separate agency from the Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP). For reference, VSD sends notifications to victims of crime, concerned citizens, and criminal justice professionals who register to receive updates via text, email, and/or letter, regarding parole review and decisions made by the Board.
Thanks to the Board’s Chairman, David Gutiérrez, I was blessed with the opportunity to start the Board’s Victim Liaison Program in 2017, which is funded by a VOCA (Victims of Crime Act) grant with the support of the Governor’s Office. We focus specifically on assisting victims throughout the parole review process and, upon request, provide support and accompaniment to those who choose to speak with the Board. The VSD and BPP work together daily to ensure consistent and reliable services are provided to survivors after an offender is sentenced to TDCJ.
I realized early on that there can often be quite a gap between pre- and post-conviction, and I would love to help close that gap, with the goal of improving a victim’s experience with the entire criminal justice system. I was asked to share the most frequently asked questions, from both victims and prosecutors, and I hope you find the following information to be beneficial.
What is parole?
First off, parole is the discretionary release of an offender by a Board of Pardons and Paroles decision, to serve the remainder of a sentence in the community under supervision. Parole is a privilege, not a right. While the Board is responsible for making release decisions and imposing conditions, the TDCJ Parole Division maintains supervision of the offender.
Questions about parole from crime victims
“The offender was sentenced to XX years. Why is s/he eligible for parole?”
This question usually comes in the form of a very frantic and upset phone call. We have to explain that almost all offenders have a parole eligibility date (PED), which is calculated by TDCJ Classification & Records, based on when the crime was committed and what they were convicted of. Only offenders who were given the death penalty or life without parole do not have a PED. Additionally, most offenders do not serve their entire sentence in custody; the majority will be required to complete an in-prison rehabilitative program, then be released to parole supervision prior to the discharge date.
“How do I protest the offender’s release? What do I say?”
Protest letters can be submitted to VSD via mail, email, or fax. The contact information can be found at www.tdcj.texas.gov/divisions/vs/index.html. Additionally, state law allows for the victim, guardian of the victim, or close relative of a deceased victim to appear before the lead voter. The lead voter is the first voter on the panel, who conducts all interviews for a particular case. This “Board interview” can be conducted by phone, by Zoom, or in person at the designated Board Office. Topics you might want to discuss include any fears or concerns regarding the offender’s release, things you’ve experienced as a result of the crime, and anything else you want the Board to consider.
“What will the parole hearing be like?”
We do not hold formal parole “hearings” like we often see on TV. One Board member or parole commissioner is designated as the lead voter, and the victim’s interview will take place with that individual only. The setting will depend on which type of interview you select (phone, Zoom, or in person), but all are intended to be informal, confidential opportunities for a crime victim to share thoughts with the lead voter. A meeting at the Board office will take place in a private conference room, and the offender remains incarcerated.
Accompaniment can be requested for support and assistance throughout the parole review process by contacting the Board’s Victim Liaison Program (contact information provided at the end of this article).
“If I want to speak with the lead voter in person, where will the meeting take place?”
The facility where the offender is housed determines which of the seven Board offices will vote on the case. There are offices in Amarillo, Angleton, Austin, Gatesville, Huntsville, Palestine, and San Antonio.
“What does the Board look at when making parole decisions?”
The Board will consider a variety of factors, including but not limited to:
• severity of the offense,
• support and protest letters,
• length of the sentence vs. the amount of time served,
• the offender’s criminal history,
• how the offender behaved during previous periods of supervision (if applicable),
• institutional adjustment and behavior, and
• the offender’s age.
Voters will provide reasons for their approval or denial decisions. Note that protest letters are confidential and victim input is never provided as a denial reason. You can review the possible approval and denial reasons at www.tdcj.texas .gov/bpp/what_is_parole/reasons.htm.
Questions from prosecutors and VACs
The Board aims to be transparent with stakeholders, educate others about what we do, and maintain open communication with other agencies around the State. Chairman Gutiérrez, Chief of Staff Tim McDonnell, and I recently met with several district attorney’s offices to discuss the Board’s mission, parole review process, and services provided by Victim Liaison Program. These presentations have also allowed for valuable Q&A sessions. Here are some actual questions from prosecutors and victim assistance coordinators (VACs), plus our answers.
“How does parole really work? We want to be able to explain this to victims and better understand it ourselves. We’d be interested in knowing what portion of a sentence a defendant can really be expected to serve.”
Most offenders become parole-eligible once their calendar time (including time served in county jail) plus their good time and work time equal one-fourth of their sentence. The exception is when there is an affirmative finding of a deadly weapon, which requires the offender to serve half of the sentence before becoming eligible for parole. Laws pertaining to time calculation (good time and work time) are very complicated, and questions regarding inmate time management can be addressed by calling the TDCJ Classification and Records Office at 936/467-6387. The Board reviews only those offenders who are deemed eligible for parole by TDCJ.
Another benefit of a deadly weapon finding is that it prevents the offender from earning good time credit; therefore, only “flat time” (day-for-day) counts towards parole eligibility. The full list of 3g or “flat time only” offenses is provided in Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 42A.054.
There is an extensive Parole Eligibility Chart in the Appendix of the Parole In Texas publication, which can be viewed at www.tdcj.texas.gov/ bpp/publications/PIT_English.pdf.
“What can we do to keep someone incarcerated?”
Submit a thorough protest letter with the specific reasons for your concerns. Not only does this information assist the parole panels in their release decisions, but it also helps them determine which conditions to impose if the offender is released to supervision. Generic or form letters such as “I object to parole” are less impactful. The Board Members and Parole Commissioners truly value your detailed input on why you are concerned about release for a particular offender.
“Anything you can tell us about the effect of pleas would be helpful. What can we do in the plea process to impact the duration of incarceration?”
If there are multiple charges, stack them when possible. This guarantees the victim of each offense the right to speak with the Board and request conditions, in addition to obviously increasing the amount of time the offender will have to serve.
Utilize the deadly weapon finding whenever possible, for reasons provided above.
Be aware that certain parole conditions, such as GPS monitoring and Super Intensive Supervision Program (SISP) can be imposed only on certain offenses.
Send the Board any background and reasons for the plea you’d want members to consider.
Be aware that most offenses require the offender to be reviewed by the Board annually. The more serious convictions allow the Board to “set off” or deny parole for longer periods of time (up to 10 years). For examples or further information, please contact me (my information is below).
“What can we do to help victims?”
First, make sure they register with VSD. If the victim is not able to complete the Victim Impact Statement, please provide VSD’s hotline number (800/848-4284) to ensure registration is completed.
Next, to avoid re-victimization, please be straightforward with survivors regarding when the offender will become eligible for parole. If you’re not sure when this will happen, please reach out to VSD!
Finally, please ensure victims are aware of the post-conviction services available to them. We want to provide support whenever possible in light of how difficult the parole review process can be.
“What happens when an offender is paroled and then violates the conditions of release?”
The parole revocation process is very different from regular parole review (when an offender is still incarcerated). The TDCJ Parole Division is responsible for the supervision of all parolees and for the investigation of alleged violations. Authorities there have the option to issue a warrant or summons or utilize sanctions in lieu of a warrant.
Parolees are guaranteed the right to due process, and if a revocation hearing is conducted, the Board has several options. These include continuing the offender’s parole with the same or modified conditions, transfer to an Intermediate Sanction Facility, transfer to a Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility, revocation of parole, or allowing the offender to discharge his or her current sentence.
For a comprehensive list of victims’ frequently asked questions, along with a 10-minute informational video, visit www.tdcj.texas.gov/bpp/VictimLiaison/VictimLiaison.html. If you are interested in an in-person training for your staff, please contact me at Libby.Hamilton @tdcj.texas.gov or 512/406-5833. I greatly appreciate you taking the time to read this article.