Monday the Office of the Legislative Auditor General released a troubling audit of the Board of Pardons and Parole.
The audit confirms the complaints of many inmates and family members, who say that the Board has no consistent practices for determining length of stay for inmates, uses questionable and inconsistent decision making processes, fails to keep adequate records and fails to communicate effectively with the public.
“We are very pleased that the legislature is paying attention to this part of our system,” said Karen McCreary, ACLU of Utah Executive Director. “Utahns want a criminal justice system that is fair, just and efficient with public dollars, and the Parole Board of Pardons plays a huge role in our system. We need to know where the Board can improve, so we can be sure that public safety is protected while taxpayer money isn’t being wasted keeping low-risk offenders behind bars when they don’t need to be there.”
The legislative audit reveals that the Board still does all its recordkeeping on paper, rather than in electronic files, making coordination with other agencies and substantive performance measurement virtually impossible. The audit also notes that the Board fails to follow consistent, data-driven decision-making processes, meaning that lengths of stay for different inmates may be essentially arbitrary. The Board has no stated philosophy or strategic direction, and tracks no performance measures to assess whether it is contributing to Utah’s new emphases on evidence-based practices in criminal justice.
“We have been receiving complaints for several years now about the Parole Board’s lack of transparency, accountability and consistency,” said Leah Farrell, ACLU of Utah Staff Attorney. “This audit makes quite clear the many reasons that the Board’s processes and practices are confusing and frustrating for victims, inmates, families and even defense attorneys.”
Utah’s Board of Pardons and Parole has much more discretion and power than similar entities in other states, largely due to Utah’s system of “indeterminate sentencing.” A defendant in a criminal trial may be sentenced to a broad, undefined term, such as “five years to life,” with the Board ultimately deciding whether that inmate serves five years, twenty years, or his entire natural life in prison.
The audit includes recommendations such as the following: the Board should establish and maintain an electronic file management system that can be coordinated with other criminal justice agencies’ systems; the Board should identify and track performance measures related to its role in the criminal justice system; the Board should establish a clear, evidence-based process for reviewing all cases; the Board should improve its communication to inmates and families about decisions and the decision-making process; the Board should adopt a clear guiding philosophy as well as a strategic plan for its work; and the Board should consider hiring an Executive Director to ensure consistency and philosophical continuity for the agency.
“We’re very pleased that the Legislative auditors have recommended such robust reforms, which are in proportion to the outsized role the Board plays in our criminal justice system,” said Farrell. “We look forward to ensuring that all recommendations are implemented with the Constitution, as well as public safety, in mind.”
During the research phase of the 2014 Justice Reinvestment Initiative process, which led to the creation and passage of HB348, analysts from the Pew Public Safety Performance Project found that one primary growth factor for Utah’s prison population is increasingly long lengths of stay. Pew’s research revealed that Utah inmates are being kept longer behind bars, for the same crimes, than ten years ago. The Board of Pardons and Parole is the primary entity in the state criminal justice system that determines how long an inmate remains in prison.