The Surprising Truth About Parole Boards – Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

The Surprising Truth About Parole Boards

In 1977, Reynaldo Rodriguez shot and killed a man as part of an ongoing family feud. It was a man named Robert Cuellar, whom he believed had shot at Rodriguez’s mother and brother.

At the time, Rodriguez was 19 and had a young son. The judge gave him a choice after he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder: a 15-30 year sentence, with parole probably coming in about 12 years or a life sentence with parole eligibility in about 10 years.

As this happened in Saginaw County, Michigan, where parole boards have almost complete control over who gets released when Rodriguez has served 39 years in prison and there’s no end in sight.

In addition, Rodriguez a model prisoner. In a letter to his parole board in 2003, he wrote that he had no idea what more he could do to have his case reviewed meaningfully.

They did not respond.

Rodriguez also wrote to his judge, who was very surprised to learn he was still in prison, but who has no authority in the case anymore.

Issues Around Parole

One of the issues around parole is that it is seen, not as the right of prisoners, but as an act of mercy and one that is doled out very cautiously. Of course, parole boards fear that any prisoner released too early will re-offend, and especially those whose crimes were of a violent nature.

So they often don’t make a decision on those cases, even though studies exist showing that less than 1% of inmates convicted of violent crimes have gone on to commit any felony after release.

Another factor is that parole boards lack the time to give each parole request adequate review. A 2008 survey showed the average state board considered over 8,000 requests – 35 decisions per work day. And that’s not the only part of a parole board’s job.

The System

According to the article by the Washington Post, a Georgia parole board member spoke anonymously about the system: “You’re just talking about two to three minutes to make a decision. The public would be astounded at the short period of time that the board has to make decisions on life and death cases.”

The review process varies by state. Some conduct interviews and review files and some only review files. Some meet to discuss cases but some only pass files around until there are enough votes to form a consensus. The operations manager of the Missouri board for 30 years, Janet Baron, says some members never even looked at the files, instead relying on the votes of the others to make their decision.

Parole Boards Operate in Complete Secrecy

This brings up the next point, which is that most parole boards operate in complete secrecy. Some states going so far as not to reveal who is on the board at all or whether they are even qualified to hold this job.

In 1967, the President’s Crime Commission recommended parole boards be staffed by correctional professionals and not political appointees. To this day, parole boards are staffed by political appointees – often handed out as a prize because of the six-figure income associated with being on a parole board.

Many states lack any standards for qualification to be on a parole board, and since board members are under pressure from political leaders who gifted the job, their decisions can tend to be highly politicized.

The Process

However, the review process is, by law, shielded from any review. Parole board decisions, unlike any other members of the legislative or judicial system, are done in secret. They are, by law, unreviewable. What’s worse is that parole boards are encouraged to make their decisions based not just on a prisoner’s behavior since entering the prison system, but for any reason.

In addition, they are encouraged to rely on the observation of guards, counselors or other corrections personnel. Unsubstantiated rumors may appear in their files, as can crimes the prisoners were never prosecuted for or facts that were never brought up in court and subject to the discretion of a judge and jury.

Victim input is part of the parole process and victim advocacy groups have a lot of pull on the outside. If a victim or their family have an objection that inmate will probably never get paroled.

Two Major Problems

There are two major problems with this system, aside from the fact that inmates are spending much more time behind bars than was originally intended.

The first is that our prisons are overcrowded. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. 1.5 million people are behind bars in our country. The staggering cost of this is paid by taxpayers.

The second is that some criminals – some with violent crimes in their past – are simply maxing out of the system once they’ve served their time. They have no oversight or help once they leave. Unlike the parole process, which gives the criminal justice system to keep an eye on inmates while they are re-adjusting.


Prison overcrowding is one reason parole board reform is starting to gain ground. Half of all federal prisoners are there for drug related crimes. It’s time to do something to make the parole system more professional, transparent, and effective.

Over to You

What are your thoughts about the current parole system?