By Camilo Smith
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Compounding the inconsistencies is the huge number of cases the board must review annually; last fiscal year, more than 67,000 inmates passed through the system, with a similar number projected for this year. The members are scattered unevenly across the state in seven district offices; each case gets at least two votes, with a third vote as the tiebreaker if necessary. Depending on who's counting, the board members spend an average of between four and nine minutes on each case -- hardly enough time to skim the file, let alone interview the inmates, attorneys or anyone else who might offer compelling information. "The bottom-line thing you can't escape is the numbers," says Gary Cohen, an Austin attorney who chairs the parole committee of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. "The sheer weight of the system is crushing."
According to a study commissioned by the state, board members don't agree on what they consider important, or even their primary function. Some focus on whether an inmate has, in their minds, been sufficiently punished. Others primarily consider the odds of whether an inmate will succeed or fail if paroled. Some say they look closely at the percentage of time served; others ignore it because of perceived inequities in sentencing. Some believe they reach better decisions if they can talk to the inmates, though they have time to see only 20 percent; others won't talk to inmates, their lawyers or anyone else. "They don't know where the hell they're going," says former Board of Pardons and Paroles chairman Jack Kyle. "As Yogi Berra said, if you don't know where you're going, you're lost when you get there."
Though the study reported that "board members clearly are most interested in risk assessment as the primary objective in decision-making," current practice says otherwise. Dismukes, for example, received the usual boilerplate explanation for his set-off: prior "criminal record and/or nature of offenses." Habern can recite a litany of clients with perfect prison track records who do everything asked of them yet never muster the needed votes to go free.
Of course, when it comes to releasing inmates into society, especially those convicted of violent crimes, the easiest thing to do is just say no. "The public wants prisoners out of sight and out of mind," says Kyle. "All of the people who are elected campaign on the promise that they're gonna lock 'em up and throw away the key."
And though board members insist they don't consider politics in their decision-making, it's hard to see how they can avoid it. Most of the board members come from within criminal justice circles and look for related jobs when their terms expire. Some, including Cynthia Tauss, are involved in politics. A former chairwoman of the Galveston County Republican Party, she is currently active in state party activities. After she leaves office, Tauss says, "I'll probably go to work on some campaigns or something."
When the prisons get overcrowded in part because the parole rate drops, as happened last year, legislators hammer the board for rejecting good parole candidates. Conversely, when an inmate gets out on parole and commits another crime, the board gets crucified in the media for being too lenient. And since board members are appointed by the governor, their mistakes can be used by opponents to make political hay -- Willie Horton remains one of the most famous parolees in history. "They don't count the success rate," Kyle says. "They count only failures."
Parole board chairman Gerald Garrett allows that the system could stand some improvement. But he takes issue with the idea that the board's decisions have a political component, especially when it comes to the ups and downs in the parole rate. "It's been part of popular mythology that the parole rate is a direct result of the criticism we receive," Garrett says. "People evaluate the criminal justice system in general, and the parole system in particular, on such a naive basis."
Garrett may be one of the few people in Texas who believe that. Almost everyone interviewed for this story acknowledged that the political winds blow as strongly at the parole board as at any institution in the state. Habern summed up their comments succinctly: "Tell me politics doesn't play a role in the parole process, and I'll tell you, 'Bullshit.' "
Tauss, who twice voted against Dismukes, acknowledges the pressure she and her colleagues face. "This has been a bigger dose of reality than I ever anticipated," she says of her six years on the board. "My greatest fear has always been that my picture would be on the front page of the Houston Chronicle, saying, 'This woman let that person out, and he bombed City Hall.' "
Kyle, like most critics, doesn't fault individual board members, who are just operating with what they're given. "Thirty-five to 40 percent of the people in the penitentiary today could probably be safely released," he says. "The parole system is about as dysfunctional as I think you could possibly find."
Bill Habern combs for files amid the clutter of his office, a converted trailer with add-ons that sits next to his country home near Lake Livingston. The house has expanded over the years in similar, organic fashion that fits Habern's persona. Partial to wearing a black derby that offsets his casual garb, he mixes sophisticated observations about the criminal justice system with off-color barbs and well-spun tales.