Thousands of inmates rely annually on a capricious parole board for their freedom. Most, like George Dismukes, return to their cells without ever knowing why they were denied.

That all makes sense, but the problem of data collection will be a thornier one to solve. While severity of the crime is fixed in stone, the information used to calculate risk factors constantly changes. Prisoner age, for example, is one of the best indicators of risk -- the older you get, the less likely you are to commit another crime. Inmates who avail themselves of opportunities for education, substance abuse treatment and other programs also stand a better chance on the outside. Other key risk factors include criminal history, family support and chances for employment, which can vary dramatically.

Those responsible for collecting and submitting the data are the 250 Institutional Parole Officers, who prepare comprehensive case summaries that are forwarded to the parole board. The IPOs occupy about the same position in the criminal justice food chain as prison guards -- they're similarly underpaid and undertrained, and turnover is high. Moreover, the information available to them has historically been spotty, and they must rely on a patchwork of reports, files and inmate interviews that may themselves contain inaccuracies. "The issue of data input and inconsistency is an issue that cuts across the whole system," says policy council executive director Tony Fabelo.

Though the degree of inaccuracy embedded in the current process can only be estimated, the consultants conducted tests to gauge the reliability of the Parole 80 scores. Using only those IPOs believed to be the most experienced and best trained, they selected a random sample of cases considered by the parole board in previous months; an IPO who had not scored the case the first time computed a new score. The two scores agreed less than half the time.

Celluloid heroes: George Dismukes's long association with the Duke would lead to a related career in Houston…
Photos courtesy of George Dismukes
Celluloid heroes: George Dismukes's long association with the Duke would lead to a related career in Houston…

The new guidelines are supposed to eliminate much of the confusion and inaccuracy. But when the proposed guidelines were similarly tested using both IPOs and board members, the inconsistencies were still glaringly apparent. As the consultants' report notes, "The results … indicate that a considerable error rate exists in the scoring and designation process."

While the consultants believe the problem can be overcome with an intensive training program, that remains to be seen. Training will begin at the end of May, after which a new round of tests will determine how effectively the guidelines have been absorbed. But that question will be moot unless another question can be answered affirmatively: Will the board members be convinced that the new tool will be any more useful than the old?

The policy council will closely monitor the board's use of the guidelines after they're in place. Board members who don't seem to be in sync will be given "feedback," according to council director Fabelo. "I think we will show that some people are using it, and maybe we will show that some people are not," he says. "We're gonna make this more visible than in the past."

The idea, Fabelo says, is not to take the discretion and power away from the board members, but to make their jobs easier. "It should help them," he says. "That's the goal. It's moving back to something not subject to political pressure. If someone is reluctant [to use them], I'd be surprised."

Cynthia Tauss, who is awaiting replacement because her term has expired, offers a somewhat different view. "I think these new guidelines look like they are going to be much more realistic," she says. "Then again, knowing myself, I'd probably glance at them, but I wouldn't trust them completely."

Relaxed and confident, Tolee Nguyen doesn't look too upset for a guy who just got a two-year set-off. Last time around he had to wait only one year, and he believed he had finally put himself in position to get out of prison. Valedictorian of his GED class, he has since accumulated enough college credits to earn his degree. His disciplinary record has been clean the last six years. He's a trusty at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville, considered harmless enough to drive around town in the prison truck and deliver packages. His parents are active in Houston's Vietnamese community, and his siblings have promised to help him complete his education and employ him at his brother's computer firm. When approached by the Press about interviewing Nguyen, TDCJ spokesman Larry Fitzgerald indicated he knew the name: "You mean the guy who turned his life around?"

Nguyen was officially convicted in 1991 of "engaging in organized crime" while serving a sentence for burglary. A high school dropout and delinquent street punk, he was originally arrested for burglary, given probation, and then sent to prison after failing to report to his probation officer. While in jail, he was set up by a police snitch who shared his cell; the snitch asked Nguyen and another cellmate if they wanted him to kill a particular cop who had given them problems. Nguyen agreed. Though the snitch later claimed he'd done the deed and demanded cash, no money changed hands, so the police couldn't get him for soliciting to commit murder. Instead, they claimed Nguyen was engaging in gang activity and charged him with the organized crime rap. A jury gave him a 40-year sentence.

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