By Dee J. Hall, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Beverly Walker doubts that the governor’s plan to abolish the Wisconsin Parole Commission will add efficiency to a sluggish system, and she suspects it would make qualifying for parole even more difficult.
Her husband, Baron Walker, has been imprisoned for nearly 22 years on a 60-year sentence for two armed bank robberies. Since 2011, he has been eligible for parole under Wisconsin’s old sentencing scheme, which allowed inmates to petition for release after serving one-fourth of their time.
Gov. Scott Walker is proposing to abolish the Parole Commission and put the decision about whether to release thousands of parole-eligible prisoners into the hands of a single gubernatorial appointee. Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the change would “streamline” the parole process.
The Parole Commission has operated short-handed during Walker’s tenure; the eight-member board currently has five vacancies.
“It just seems like everything is stagnated when it comes to parole-eligible inmates already, so it’s hard to tell if eliminating the commission is going to help this process move forward or not,” Beverly Walker said.
Baron Walker has met required conditions for behavior and all programming that has been recommended, including a high school equivalency degree and vocational training, according to a 2015 report from the Parole Commission. He now resides in the minimum security Oakhill Correctional Institution, whose primary focus is to “prepare offenders for release into the community.”
The home page photo of the Oakhill Correctional Institution in Fitchburg was taken by Michelle Stocker of The Cap Times.
“You take full responsibility for your crimes and for the harm you have caused the victims and others. You have engaged in a considerable amount of positive growth and maturity during this incarceration,” the report stated.
Despite that, the commission concluded that Walker’s criminal history — including a previous stint in prison — and the severity of his crimes means “serving additional time for punishment is warranted.”
“It’s horrible that we’re not together, reunited, by now because he’s met the requirements of the law he was sentenced under,” said Beverly Walker of Milwaukee, who has been a single mother to their five children, who now have six children of their own.
Under the Republican governor, the Parole Commission has released far fewer offenders than it did under his predecessor, Democrat Jim Doyle. One inmate advocate, the Rev. Jerry Hancock, said cutting funding for parole considerations even more could make a “broken and unfair system” worse.
Parole plan raises questions
An international parole expert said if adopted, Wisconsin’s system would be “a very unique set- up” and one that could be less fair to parolees and more prone to political influence.
“In my history in criminal justice of 30-something years … I’ve never seen a situation where they limited the decision-making to one person,” said Monica Morris, chief administrative officer of the Association of Paroling Authorities International, a Huntsville, Texas-based group that helps develop research-based parole policy.
“In my opinion, that is too much power to give to one person,” Morris added. “The whole concept of a parole board is you have two or three or five or seven (people) where you have a deliberative process where people are making a collaborative decision.”
Cecelia Klingele, an assistant law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said she cannot imagine how one person could give “fair and full consideration” to the “significant” number of people who are currently parole eligible.
Department of Corrections spokesman Tristan Cook said about 3,000 people are serving “parole eligible” sentences in Wisconsin but he did not know how many of those are currently eligible for release.
While no inmate is “entitled” to parole, “they do have a legal right to fair assessment of their case,” said Klingele, who specializes in criminal justice administration and community supervision.
Walker’s two-year budget calls for closing the Parole Commission on Jan. 1, 2018 and moving its duties to the DOC. That would save an estimated $1.8 million over two years, including elimination of 13 positions, Evenson said. Decisions on whether to grant paroles would be handled by a “director of paroles” appointed by the governor, he said.
Evenson said the proposal is a “common sense change” since the chairperson of the Parole Commission, who makes the final decision on releases, is already a gubernatorial appointee.
Parole board members generally have set terms and can be removed only for cause, creating at least some political independence, said Morris, who served under three governors during her 12 years on the Florida Parole Commission.
Putting the board under the purview of the DOC, she said, could reduce some of that independence.
“I would not want … the people that are holding the key to be included in the decision-making process,” Morris said. “What if they have an incentive to keep them in or an incentive to let them out?”
No breakdown on ‘old-law’ offenders
According to data from the Wisconsin DOC, 1,002 paroles were granted between July 2011 — when Kathleen Nagle, Walker’s first pick to lead the Parole Commission, took office — and the end of 2016. The DOC database does not disclose what proportion of offenders were old-law prisoners and which were sentenced more recently.
About half of the paroled offenders, or 491, participated in earned release programs, which include the Wisconsin Substance Abuse Program and the Challenge Incarceration Program, Cook said. Both Cook and Evenson emphasized that under earned release, offenders’ length of sentences do not change; time in custody is cut and converted to time outside of prison under supervision of a probation or parole agent.
Another 141 offenders had reached their mandatory release date, meaning the DOC was legally obligated to parole them, according to department data. Under the old law, inmates were eligible for parole after serving one-fourth of their sentences and had to be released under most circumstances after serving two-thirds of their sentences — factors that judges kept in mind prior to 2000 when sentencing offenders.
Advocates for parole-eligible inmates had mixed reactions to Walker’s proposal to kill the Parole Commission.
Hancock, director of the Prison Ministry Project in Madison and a former prosecutor, accused Walker of refusing to “grant the fair hearing that sentencing judges promised” to old-law prisoners, calling it “cruel, inhumane and immoral.”
David Liners, state director of WISDOM, a statewide faith-based group, said it is unclear whether the changes would speed up or slow down parole considerations for old-law inmates.
“It is very hard to imagine that they will deal with parole requests more efficiently with less people,” Liners said.
However, leaving the decision within the DOC could avoid the “bureaucratic nightmares” that some inmates encounter in qualifying for release, he said. Some old-law inmates have said they cannot access programming ordered by the Parole Commission because the DOC does not make it available to them.
Instead of abolishing the commission, Hancock said, the Legislature should determine which parole-eligible offenders — some of them already working outside prison walls — would be safe for release, possibly saving taxpayers millions a year.
Rate of parole unclear
An analysis by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism shows the Parole Commission granted 11.9% of parole petitions in 2016 — a number that had been in the single digits for four and a half years. That includes inmates who petitioned more than once in a year.
Whether Wisconsin is typical of other states in its parole release rate is unclear. Wisconsin did not report parole numbers in the most recent U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance report.
Even so, it is nearly impossible to compare state correctional systems because of variations in how such data are reported, according to a 2015 investigation by The Washington Post and The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news outlet that reports on criminal justice issues.
But the investigation did find one common theme: Many states are “deeply cautious” about releasing inmates, ”even those who pose little danger and whom a judge clearly intended to go free.”
In the past, the Wisconsin DOC defended the slowing pace of paroles for old-law prisoners, saying those who have not been released earlier have committed the most serious crimes. A DOC report on parole-eligible prisoners as of 2014 found that 73% were incarcerated for forcible rape, homicide or non-negligent manslaughter.
Days from parole, offender told ‘no’
Adan Castellano, an old-law inmate, was 17 years old in 1993 when he and six others were involved in the beating of two teens they suspected of being members of a rival gang. One boy, who was determined not to be a gang member, was killed.
Castellano was convicted in Racine County Circuit Court of reckless homicide and other counts and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. After being locked up for 24 years, Castellano — now 41 years old — is a model prisoner, according to his parole report. Considered a low risk to the public, Castellano has earned the right to work for a landscaping company in the Madison area.
“You entered the system at a young age, turned your life around, completed programming, satisfied all owed obligations, saved money for release, secured an approved release plan and demonstrated success at multiple minimum community custody sites with work release,” Parole Commission member Danielle LaCost wrote.
She recommended that Castellano, currently housed at the fenceless Oregon Correctional Center, be released Jan. 24.
However, as one of his first orders of business, Walker’s newly appointed interim Parole Commission chairman, Douglas Drankiewicz, on Feb. 1 rejected that recommendation. He wrote that Castellano needed to serve more time in part because of “the nature and severity of the crime (the senseless taking of an innocent life).”
Lupe Castellano of Waukegan, IL, who was one year old when her brother was sent to prison, said the parole denial was devastating to Adan’s nieces and nephews, four siblings and especially his mother.
“It’s been really hard on my mom,” she said. “Especially to know that she was finally going to have her son home — and to have it taken away like that.”
She said eliminating the Parole Commission would probably result in fewer paroles because it would be impossible for a single official to track the progress of thousands of inmates.
“Your life would be in one person’s hands,” Castellano said.
Liners said many old-law inmates and their families complain that they are repeatedly denied parole even after demonstrating evidence of rehabilitation and little risk of re-offending.
“The reason they (inmates) are given so often is because of the severity of the crime or due to insufficient time served,” Liners said. “These things always harken back to the original crime, and that’s the one thing these guys can’t change.”
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s reporting on criminal justice issues is supported by a grant from the Vital Projects Fund. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
Dee J. Hall is a co-founder of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, and worked at the Wisconsin State Journal for 24 years as an editor and reporter focusing on projects and investigations.
Photo Credits: Cecelia Klingele, courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School; Rev. Jerry Hancock, John Hart, Wisconsin State Journal; David Liners, Coburn Dukehart, WCIJ; Adan Castellano, Wisconsin Department of Corrections.