The false hope of parole

Parole boards determine the fate of thousands of prisoners, but they’re marred by corruption and malfeasance.

The false hope of parole

Parole boards determine the fate of thousands of prisoners, but they’re marred by corruption and malfeasance.

In June 2016, a man sat before a television screen in a Missouri prison, awaiting his fate. The feed from Jefferson City showed two men sitting side by side: a member of the Board of Probation and Parole named Don Ruzicka, and an on-staff parole analyst. The parole analyst, who was leading the parole hearing, mentioned a prior misdemeanor in the prisoner’s file for illegal hunting of wildlife.

“That wasn’t an armadillo, was it?” the analyst asked.

“What did you say?” the potential parolee asked in confusion, explaining that his charge had been for deer hunting. The men in Jefferson City laughed. Moving on to a prior weapons offense, the parole analyst asked, “You weren’t shootin’ armadillos, were you?” The analyst continued to bring up armadillos throughout the hearing, drawing laughter from his colleague.

Later that day, it was Ruzicka’s turn to lead a hearing. Another potential parolee was listing items he had stolen from a garage. Ruzicka broke in, commenting that the items sounded rare, “like a platypus,” before asking, “How did you know those items were there?”

If questions about armadillos and platypuses seem out of place at a parole hearing in Missouri, it’s because Ruzicka and his colleague were playing a game of their own invention. During some of their hearings together, they made up “words of the day” like platypus and armadillo, which they inserted into questions and tried to get parole interviewees to repeat. Transcripts show the men laughing and keeping track of points they earned by working words and phrases like “hootenanny,” “Peggy Sue,” and “ain’t nothing but a hound dog” into their questioning.

In 2016, a concerned colleague — the person’s name was redacted in the report — disclosed the occurrence of the word games to the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC), prompting an internal investigation. The department’s inspector general, Amy Roderick, documented multiple instances of the games. MDOC opted not to make her report public, however, and kept Ruzicka, who was four years into his six-year term, on the board. He presided over hundreds or thousands more parole hearings over the next six months.

Six months after the investigation, Ruzicka led the parole hearing of Norman Brown, a 41-year-old man from St. Louis who is serving a life sentence for his involvement in a murder at age 15. Brown, who was denied parole, is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit in federal court that alleges Ruzicka’s “thoughtless, unprofessional, and adolescent behavior” was a symptom of a parole board rife with “arbitrariness, dysfunction, and lack of transparency.” The four named plaintiffs seek a court order to end parole practices that they believe violate their federal and state constitutional rights, as well as the rights of about 100 others.

Don Ruzicka.

Don Ruzicka.

The suit, which was filed by the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center of St. Louis, a civil rights law firm, outlines how the board operates in secrecy and without oversight, oversees far too many cases to give each one proper attention, issues blanket denials, and focuses solely on the nature of the crime, disregarding how people have changed and matured. Defendants include Ruzicka, who resigned one week after the lawsuit was filed in June of last year (the case does not allege that Ruzicka played word games during Norman Brown’s hearing), as well as MDOC director Anne Precythe and the six remaining members of the parole board. (MDOC did not respond to request for comment. Ruzicka could not be reached.)

Playing word games during hearings is particularly egregious, but the lawsuit’s descriptions of secrecy, overwhelming workloads, and unchecked power echo concerns raised about parole boards throughout the country. In a 2016 report, the ACLU found that parole boards “generally operate in secrecy with few (if any) constraints or due process protections; with enormous discretionary and politicized power but limited oversight; and with a near-exclusive focus not on who the individual is now but on the crime for which they were convicted, sometimes decades ago.”

Supreme Court precedent defines parole as an “act of grace,” not a right, generally freeing it from court oversight. When incarcerated Missourians have sued the parole board in the past, hoping to overturn denials or even gain access to their own files, federal courts ruled in the state’s favor. But Norman Brown and his co-plaintiffs believe their case is different. They are part of a unique class of about 2,100 prisoners across the country who were guaranteed a meaningful chance at freedom in a recent Supreme Court decision — a promise they say Missouri is failing to uphold.

When Brown was 15, he helped an adult man rob a jewelry store. Mid-robbery, his co-defendant killed the store clerk and shot the clerk’s wife. Brown and the other man were both convicted of first-degree murder, despite the fact that Brown was unarmed. The shooter got the death penalty. Brown’s conviction came with a slower type of death sentence: life without parole.

Twenty-one years later, in 2012, the Supreme Court declared that sentences like Brown’s — mandatory juvenile life without parole, JLWOP for short — were unconstitutional. In 2016, the Court made this decision retroactive, declaring that previously sentenced juvenile lifers like Brown “must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.” The Missouri legislature obeyed the Court’s mandate by passing a law that made anyone serving JLWOP eligible to apply for parole after 25 years. The law instructs the parole board to consider rehabilitation efforts, growth, and institutional record, as well as a host of mitigating factors regarding the original crime, such as the individual’s role, maturity, mental development, background, and family life.

For the first time, Brown and about 100 others serving JLWOP in Missouri could glimpse a future outside of prison. Brown’s younger sister, Shatiega, told me the rulings were “like a breath of fresh air. It was like, finally. We celebrated it. We said, ‘Maybe this is it, this is your chance.’” But of the 23 juvenile lifers who have gone before the parole board as a result of the new law, Brown’s complaint alleges that just two were granted parole (MDOC disputes this number, claiming four of 23 were paroled). Brown and his co-plaintiffs believe this 91-percent denial rate violates their Supreme Court-guaranteed “hope for some years of life outside prison walls.”

The law instructs the parole board to consider rehabilitation efforts, growth, and institutional record, as well as a host of mitigating factors regarding the original crime.

Shatiega Brown said that the day before her brother’s hearing, “He was so confident. He was like, ‘I’m ready. I feel good. I’m just going to put it all out on the table.’ He actually felt like he had a chance.” He hoped for the opportunity to talk about the multiple restorative justice programs he had completed, his work in the prison hospice, and the dog-training program he helped run called Puppies for Parole.

But Ruzicka was not interested in Puppies for Parole. Instead, his short series of questions for Brown focused mostly on the original crime. In Missouri, district attorneys and victims are permitted to attend parole hearings. According to the lawsuit, Brown had to sit in silence as the prosecutor presented lengthy claims that had not been part of his trial, even providing the board with a newly created crime-scene diagram. The woman who survived the shooting read a 12-page statement, suggesting that perhaps Brown had pulled the trigger, even though it was established at his trial 25 years earlier that he was unarmed and outside when the shooting occured.

Two days later, Brown received a form denial stating that “Release at this time would depreciate the seriousness of the present offense based on: A) Circumstances surrounding the present offense.” It contained no other information about what the board had considered. Brown has no legal right to appeal his result, request his file, or even access a copy of the hearing transcript.

Missouri is one of 24 states that exempt parole boards from open records laws. Janet Barton, the former operations manager for the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, described the board in 2015 as “paranoid closed. Closed to the extreme." Without access to his file, Brown has no way of knowing if the information in it is even accurate. A Missouri man told The Marshall Project in 2015 that during his parole hearing, a board member suggested out of nowhere that he had gotten away with additional murders, stating cryptically, “There’s things in your file I know about that I think you don’t know.”

The lawsuit also alleges that, as in many states, Missouri’s parole board juggles too many cases to give each one meaningful consideration. The New York parole board conducted more than 10,700 interviews over 10 months in 2014. Texas’ parole board members and commissioners heard upwards of 77,000 cases in fiscal year 2014 — more than 6,000 a month. To deal with overload, Missouri hearings are conducted by one parole board member and two staff members, such as the parole analyst who joined Don Ruzicka’s word games. The file is then passed around to the other board members for a vote. Janet Barton told The Marshall Project that during her time on the Missouri parole staff, some board members simply copied the votes of their colleagues without even reading the files.

In Missouri and at least 36 other states, parole board members are appointed by the governor. At least 19 states have no minimum qualifications for parole board appointees. While most board members across the country hold bachelor's or advanced degrees, 10 percent have no more than a high school diploma. Many board members across the country are former politicians. In Missouri, Ruzicka is a former state legislator, as are three of the six current board members.

It is not the job of a parole board to litigate or resentence crimes. Everyone going before the board has already completed their minimum sentence. Someone serving a sentence of “10 to 15 years” may be paroled after completing the minimum ten, and serve the final five years under community supervision. People who are not granted parole eventually hit their maximum sentence and “max out,” meaning they are released directly from prison to the community without any intermediate community supervision (those serving life sentences, like Brown, will never “max out”). More than 20 percent of people who left prison in 2012 were maxing out.

It is not the job of a parole board to litigate or resentence crimes. And yet, they often end up doing exactly that.

Parole boards across the country are extremely hesitant to release people convicted of violent crimes. Missouri’s overall parole approval rate is about 81 percent, but just 9 percent for those sentenced to JLWOP, according to the lawsuit. Oklahoma’s parole board approved just 1.3 percent of parole seekers convicted of violent offenses over an eight-month period. And in Maryland, where the governor has final approval over parole decisions involving life sentences, not a single juvenile lifer has been paroled in more than two decades.

These low rates reflect parole boards’ outsize focus on original crimes. A nationwide survey of parole boards found in 2008 that the top two factors they consider are “crime severity” and “crime type.” Five of the top ten factors relate to the original crime, and just one — “offender institutional behavior” — has anything to do with rehabilitation.

Politicians and parole board members fear releasing someone who will go on to reoffend. In 1976, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis infamously vetoed a bill that would have excluded first-degree murderers from a furlough program allowing prisoners to return to the community for the weekend. While on furlough, Willie Horton raped a young woman and attacked her fiance. During Dukakis’ 1988 presidential run, his opponent, George Bush, mentioned furloughs relentlessly, contributing to his landslide victory. More recently, in 2011, after a man on parole killed a police officer in Massachusetts, the entire parole board was asked to resign. Lawmakers and parole board members have internalized the moral of these cautionary tales: It is politically safer to keep people locked up.

Parole boards across the country are extremely hesitant to release people convicted of violent crimes.

Studies consistently show, however, that people convicted of the most serious crimes are extremely unlikely to reoffend. Of 860 convicted murderers paroled in California from 1995 to 2010, just five returned to prison for a new felony by 2011, and none for murder. And when a federal court ruled in 2012 that decades-old Maryland trials had denied due-process rights, more than 100 lifers were subsequently released. As of 2016, not one had been convicted of a new felony.

Parole board members’ reluctance to believe that the incarcerated person sitting before them has changed for the better is both symptom of, and contributor to mass incarceration. The mindset fits with America’s punitive outlook and insistence on defining people by the worst thing they have ever done. At the same time, repeated parole denials feed mass incarceration by keeping people behind bars who have long since stopped being a threat to public safety.

Not everyone is considered equally irredeemable. Black youths suspected of killing a white person, such as Norman Brown, make up about 23 percent of juvenile murder arrests — and more than 42 percent of juveniles serving life without parole.

Norman Brown’s six younger siblings still call him “Webo,” a shortened version of his childhood nickname “Weeble Wobble,” given because his big head reminded them of the egg-shaped toys. He still wears his hair long, like he did at 15, but his sister teases him about the growing bald spot on top. In some ways, she said, he is the same big brother he was back then — still loves to laugh, joke around, and ask nosy questions about his younger siblings’ personal lives. But in the ways that should matter to the parole board, she said he is an entirely different person from the 15-year-old kid who helped rob a jewelry store in 1991. She said her family will support him upon release with a place to stay and a job. “He will be stable and reenter society in a good way. We’re all here to help, our whole family and even extended family. He has a support system.”

Norman Brown

Norman Brown

One month after the case was filed, Shatiega said her brother was abruptly transferred to a different facility and put in “protective custody” that was indistinguishable from solitary confinement. The family believes the transfer was retaliation for filing the lawsuit. Brown was recently transferred again and put back in general population, but his sister worries for his safety. “He tries to stay in good spirits no matter what, but I'm sure it gets him down,” she said. “He doesn’t let me see it or hear it in his voice, but I know it does.”

Brown and his co-plaintiffs hope their lawsuit will result in oversight and a court order requiring the state to give them a real shot at freedom. The defendants moved for the suit to be dismissed, but the presiding judge denied the request last November, allowing the case to move forward. Both sides are gathering information and are scheduled to go to trial in November.

Don Ruzicka resigned last year, soon after the lawsuit made the inspector general’s report public. His spot on the board has not been filled, and the six other members continue to work through an average of 38 hearings each business day.

Brown is eligible for his next parole hearing in May 2021. But his sister wonders whether his second hearing will be any different from his first. “How don’t you feel like he’s ready to enter society?” she asked. “He was 15 years old. And have you looked at his history since he’s been in prison? He’s done a lot!”

“What was your reason for saying no, and then saying, ‘You can come back in four years?’ It’s been 28 years. What’s going to change that hasn’t changed?”

Katie Rose Quandt is a freelance journalist and a 2017 Soros Justice Media Fellow.