The number of people granted parole and early release from prison has dropped precipitously across the country over the past several years, with Louisiana experiencing one of the steepest declines, according to a new report.
That drop, however, likely resulted, in part, from a series of reforms to the state’s criminal justice system that made a new population of prisoners parole eligible, according to experts.
Between 2019 and 2022, the number of people granted parole by the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole fell 59%, according to the report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit. Of the 26 states surveyed by the group, only four – South Carolina (84%), Alaska (79%), Alabama (70%) and Maryland (66%) – had steeper drops.
Notably, the report covers the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when state officials across the country talked about releasing as many nonviolent, parole-eligible offenders as possible to reduce the risk of spread inside prisons. But in nearly every state the Prison Policy Initiative surveyed, that didn’t happen, said Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for the group.
“We see now that, across the board, in the states that we looked at, declining parole rates and releasing fewer people and even holding fewer hearings,” Bertram said.
Of the 26 states included in the report, 25 had lower parole numbers from 2019 to 2022, with an average drop of 41%. Only one — South Dakota — paroled more prisoners in 2022 than in 2019.
“South Dakota’s increase is also extremely modest – the state released just 62 more people in 2022 than in 2019,” the report says.
Parole boards not only granted fewer parole requests over the four-year span, but they also heard fewer applications, according to the report. The Louisiana parole board considered 2,071 parole applications in 2019 compared to 995 last year. This wasn’t an anomaly. Parole boards in all but three states – Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Arkansas – held fewer parole hearings in 2022 compared to three years earlier.
Louisiana’s decrease can be explained, in part, by a comprehensive package of criminal justice reforms, passed in 2017, that made a large number of people parole eligible who weren’t previously, such as those given life sentences when they were juveniles, said Andrew Hundley, executive director of the Louisiana Parole Project. Many of those hearings were held in 2019, after which the numbers fell off a cliff.
“It’s not a function of the parole board,” Hundley said. “There just aren’t as many people eligible. There’s a smaller pool.”
The survey focuses on what is known as “discretionary parole,” — typically granted by a state parole board based in part on board members’ subjective impressions of applicants — rather than “presumptive parole,” which is built into a sentence and granted automatically .
In Louisiana, the governor appoints the seven members of the Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole, with five serving on the board of pardons and all seven on the parole board. They must have at least five years’ experience in corrections, law enforcement, sociology, law, education, social work, or medicine.
Currently, three of the board’s seven members come from a corrections background. Two others are retired judges — one with a background as a public defender and another who served as both a prosecutor and defense attorney. The remaining two include a physical therapist and a former law librarian.
The authors of the report cite several reasons for this downward trend in parole hearings and approved parole applications, one of which is politics. In 2019, for example, Mississippi had one of the highest parole rates in the country granting 74% of parole applications it considered. But that same year, the parole board made the controversial decision to approve the release of convicted murderer Frederick Bell who had served 30 years. The board determined that he had been rehabilitated and that “private supervision will be more beneficial than further incarceration.”
Public outrage ensued along with a backlash against parole. Three years later, the state’s grant rate had fallen 42%, according to the report.
“Though parole boards are typically thought of as serving a judicial function, they are still bureaucratic bodies beholden to political good will,” the authors of the report stated.
Louisiana’s parole numbers are expected to drop even further following the election of Jeff Landry as governor, Hundley said. Landry’s campaign was built largely on a tough-on-crime platform, and the expectation is that he will appoint new members to the parole board who will make it difficult, if not impossible, for inmates to secure parole and an early release from prison. Hundley pointed to Landry’s recent, successful effort to stop the pardon board from even considering the clemency applications of death row inmates as a precursor of what is to come.
Earlier this year, Gov. John Bel Edwards publicly announced his opposition to the death penalty, kickstarting a monthslong fight between defense attorneys attempting to commute the death sentences of 56 prisoners to life and Landry, a staunch defender of capital punishment. Landry sued the pardon board to stop the clemency hearings, which resulted in just five applications moving forward and, ultimately, being rejected by the board.
“There wasn’t a deep discussion about parole on the campaign, but just assuming that he has a more conservative viewpoint about the criminal justice system, we would assume that he would have a more conservative viewpoint on the parole process,” Hundley said.
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