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Crime & Courts

Alaska’s secretive parole board has almost unlimited power to release prisoners before their sentences are up. It has never been busier.

Anchorage Correctional Complex. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Alaska's secretive parole board has the power to let almost any inmate out of prison years or even decades before their sentence is up.

It has never been busier: Last year, the Alaska Board of Parole held 629 discretionary parole hearings. Previously, the average had been 179 per year.

The three-fold increase in the number of inmates seeking to be let out of prison before their sentence is up is due to a change in law wrought by SB91, the controversial, sweeping criminal justice reform package.

Almost all Alaska prisoners can get mandatory parole or "good time" credit, in which they serve only two-thirds of their sentence behind bars if they behave themselves while incarcerated.

But SB91 dramatically expanded the number of prisoners eligible for what's called "discretionary" parole.

Now, if an inmate has exceeded the court's mandatory minimum sentence or has served a quarter of their total sentence, they can ask the parole board for release. People convicted of the most serious sex offenses are not included in the expanded eligibility.

Inmates caught on to the change quickly, said Jeffrey Edwards, the state's administrator of the Board of Parole.

As soon as the law went into effect, the board was deluged with new requests for hearings.

"The vast majority of anybody sentenced on or after January 1, 2017 is eligible," Edwards said.

Last year, the Board of Parole released prisoners applying for discretionary parole 57 percent of the time, according to statistics from the DOC.

Critics say the system gives too much power to a group of people who operate behind closed doors and essentially unchecked.

Proponents say parole is a way to allow offenders who have made strides toward bettering themselves transition into the free world under supervision, as long as the victim gets their say.

The changes to the law guarantee that the board of parole will be even more powerful in the future, as more eligible inmates apply to get out of jail long before the sentence a judge gave them is up.

In 2017, the record-shattering year when the board heard 629 applications for discretionary parole, the most common primary offense for an inmate applying was assault, according to DOC statistics. Theft and drugs were the runners-up.

Twenty-two people convicted of murder applied, as did 15 in jail for manslaughter.

Fifty-seven percent of the time, the parole board said yes to releasing the inmate — usually not immediately but within weeks, Edwards said.

Despite the much higher number of inmates applying, the board has consistently granted around 55-65 percent of applications over the past decade, according to an analysis of historical statistics.

People who break rules on parole can be sent back to prison quickly, according to the DOC. That happens a lot too: According to 2017 statistics, the parole board heard 1,275 revocation hearings last year.

Almost every aspect of Alaska's parole system is conducted behind the walls of a prison, out of view of the public.

Who is making the decisions?

Alaska's parole board is mostly made up of retired career DOC employees appointed by the Governor and paid by an honorarium based on how many days or half-days of hearings they administrate.

Unlike some states where parole board slots pay handsomely, it isn't a particularly lucrative job.

The highest paid, board chair Lonzo Henderson, earned $44,000 last year through his work with the board, according to the DOC.

Henderson, who did not respond to a request for comment in this article, is also the Western region representative for the Association of Paroling Authorities International, a major nonprofit industry group.

Other members include Sarah Possenti, a Fairbanks former probation officer and Richard "Ole" Larson, a former superintendent of the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility. Larson made headlines in 2016 when he shot an intruder crossing his yard.

Steve Meyer, a retired correctional officer and trooper, lives in Kenai. The newest member and only person without a professional background in prisons is Jason Wilson, a coordinator for Southeast Alaska Village Public Safety Officer programs.

How does the board decide who to let go?

"These decisions are not easy. These are fairly complicated release decisions," Edwards said. "The biggest factor is public safety. If we deem the risk is low and rehabilitation will be furthered, there's a good chance we'll release someone."

The board uses a tool called the LSI-R, a commercially available risk assessment tool used widely in the DOC, to help make decisions.

Another less tangible factor: Whether letting someone out will "diminish the severity of the offense," Edwards said. The parole board also heavily weighs victim testimony, Edwards said.

The board has three options, said Edwards: They can grant parole, deny parole or delay. The hearings happen at a lightning-fast pace.

When the board visited Goose Creek Correctional Center in April, they held 60-70 hearings in a week, Edwards said.

Inmates don't have the right to an attorney, though they are free to hire a private lawyer. Few do.

Board members contacted for this story did not respond to a request for an interview.

Opaque system

In Alaska, the public doesn't even have a chance to know who is out on parole: The state won't reveal which inmates the board has voted to release.

The Alaska Department of Corrections rejected a public records request for 2017 parole decisions, saying the records are confidential.

Not every state has an opaque parole system.

Alaska is one of 26 states where the parole board has full authority to release a prisoner before the end of their maximum sentence, a 2015 investigation by the nonprofit Marshall Project criminal justice reporting newsroom found.

Alaska is also one of 24 states that keeps the basis for the board's decisions — materials like risk assessments and disciplinary files — away from the public. In Washington and Oregon, such files are open.

It is one of 14 states that keep their parole hearings closed. Hearings are open to members of the public or media in Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho, though some caveats apply when they are held inside prisons.

For the most part, parole boards err on the side of conservative decisions, hoping to avoid the nightmare scenario of releasing a killer who then kills again.

That's happened at least once in Alaska: In 2009, a newly paroled murderer named Kenneth Wahl killed Elisa Orcutt, a Spenard woman he was doing yard work for. He had been released from prison just months before after serving 20 years of a 45-year sentence, according to a Daily News story from the time.

Fair? 

Some people question the parole board's fairness and impartiality.

Former Dillingham police officer Terry Rogers was shot through the hat in a 1992 standoff that killed one of his fellow police officers, Tony Jones.

A 17-year-old Eugene Maud was convicted in the killing. About five years ago, when Rogers learned more about Maud's horrific childhood, he began publicly advocating for him to be released on parole.

He even flew to Anchorage, on his own dime, in hopes of attending the hearing. He had to fight with the board to be allowed in.

Rogers contends that he witnessed a member of the parole board telling Maud that he wouldn't be getting parole – before the hearing even began.

That's not how it's supposed to work, Rogers said.

Maud was not granted parole.

Michael Boshears, the mother of an inmate who has applied for parole, says her problem with the process is the way the subjective opinions of various prison personnel make their way into the file that board members read and base decisions on — with no way for the inmate to rebut what's being said about them. She sees the parole board as "this sort of all powerful, behind-the-scenes entity."

"There's not really any sort of objective process," she said. "It's all how they feel and what they've heard."

'We thought it was life in prison — done, over'

In April, Cynthia Arnold and her family made a long drive to Goose Creek Correctional Center for one of the highest-profile parole hearing in years.

Cordell Boyd, convicted of killing her grandparents Tom and Ann Faccio and Ann's sister Emilia Elliott in a notorious 1985 triple murder in Anchorage, was up for his first chance at release.

Now 52, Boyd had been serving a 99-year sentence for killings.

When the state notified Arnold and her sister Tamera Lienhart about the hearing, they were shocked.

"We thought it was life in prison — done, over," she said. "But I've come to realize that's not a thing anymore."

Members of the public only rarely attend parole hearings, even though victims and family members are usually allowed to, according to the DOC.

It was also unusual because the family had contacted the media. A conservative blog and a TV station ran stories about Cordell Boyd's parole bid. Hundreds of people wrote letters to the parole board imploring them to keep Boyd imprisoned, Arnold said.

The day itself was surreal, Arnold said.

She'd never been inside a prison before. Finally, they entered a conference room where Boyd sat in a prison jumpsuit. She hadn't seen him in person since the trial.

He apologized to the family and said he had learned and grown in jail, and that he had changed, Arnold said.

The family was asked to leave the room. A while later, a representative came out to tell them the news: Boyd's bid had been rejected.

"My heart goes out to (Boyd) too," Arnold said. "It's bad. The whole thing is bad. But I wouldn't want to run into him anywhere."

Arnold said she left impressed by board's professionalism and deference to families but also sobered by the weight of the task before them.

"I wouldn't want to be the parole board," she said. "I wouldn't know how to make these decisions."

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