Shining a light on parole

December 27, 1993

Responding to public unease, state corrections officials are now willing to open the parole process to public view. Willing, but not anxious.

Bishop Robinson, the state's public safety secretary, says he would not oppose admitting concerned crime victims and observers with a legitimate interest to parole hearings. In the past his agency has scuttled similar proposals in the General Assembly by claiming there would be a whopping price tag for holding public parole hearings. Now Mr. Robinson estimates the cost at only $270,000 a year -- a quarter of the prediction three years ago. Since some bills to open the process are expected in the coming legislative session, the door seems at least to be ajar.

Holding open hearings for convicts seeking early release doesn't resolve all of the doubts about the parole process. But it would go a long way toward alleviating public concern when hardened criminals with records of violence commit new offenses before their previous debts to society are fully paid. The process is a mystery to the public and particularly to the victims of the crimes.

Problems have to be overcome to open these hearings. Parole hearings are held in the various prisons, which have little space to spare for public proceedings. At least initially, attendance would have to be limited to those with something more than curiousity about a case. Mr. Robinson doubts more than 10 percent of the 15,000 hearings each year would attract an audience. That's about the proportion of crime victims who now submit impact statements to the Parole Commission. To participate more fully they would have to travel to the prison where the convict is incarcerated.

Eventually the process of opening hearings could be much simpler -- and cheaper. When the new central booking facility is completed in Baltimore, prisoners will not have to be moved around for initial processing. Two-way television hookups will eliminate much of the ferrying. The same sort of equipment could link the parole candidates with the commissioners as well as an audience, without anyone moving more than a few feet.

Not yet addressed in Mr. Robinson's declaration of openness is the question of parolees' records. Because the files contain personal information that is properly confidential, they are not generally open to public view. But even if the public cannot attend a parole hearing, it is often entitled to go back and find out why a convict was released early. Corrections officials need to devise a method of opening these files while withholding medical, psychiatric and sociological material that deserves privacy.

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