Secrecy and the Parole Process

November 26, 1993

Every step in the criminal justice system, from arrest to incarceration, is conducted in full public view -- until the very end. Once a convicted criminal, who may well have lost some of his civil rights at sentencing, is eligible for parole, he acquires some privacy rights, at least in the minds of Maryland correction officials. Decisions on parole release, and the records that deal with them, are secret. We see no justification for that secrecy.

State parole officials don't really attempt to justify the secrecy, except for the need to keep certain kinds of records confidential, like psychiatric material. It's the law, they say, and they must abide by it. What's more, it would cost a lot of money to open the parole process to public view.

Not quite. The confidentiality of parole proceedings is not a state law. It is based on a departmental regulation which was approved by the legislature's Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review. But it was not debated by the full legislature.

As for the costs, it depends who's doing the estimating. The Parole Commission calculated in 1991 that opening its hearings to the public would cost $1.1 million a year. That assumed half the 13,000 hearings a year would be open. The legislature's fiscal advisers guessed that no more than 20 percent of the hearings would be need to be opened. They said that would cost perhaps a tenth of the commission's prediction.

The parole officials' use of a worst-case scenario raises questions how sincerely they would welcome open hearings. No doubt there are practical difficulties that would have to be overcome. Parole hearings are now conducted in very cramped quarters in overcrowded prisons. So they can be carried out more efficiently without onlookers, making officials' jobs easier.

The same argument can't be applied to information about the outcomes of parole hearings. Some of the information in prisoners' files probably should not be open to public view. But much of that information is qualitatively no different from material in a defendant's file in court, where virtually everything is public.

However conscientiously parole officials do their jobs, there remains public unease about the return of violent criminals to the streets. Charges of lax parole procedures may be unfair. But in a time of heightened concern over crime, the public has no way of evaluating parole officials' performance. It's time to shine some light on the process.

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