ST. LOUIS • The area around North Kingshighway and Cote Brilliante Avenue has changed a lot since Cranston Mitchell grew up there in the 1950s. McBride High School closed. DePaul Hospital moved on, and so did many of the doctors and educators.
Mitchell’s field of expertise in criminal justice has also undergone a metamorphosis.
“My God,” he said, about starting on the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole in the early 1980s, a position he held nearly two decades. “There were three of us.”
Back then, they weighed cases for Missouri’s roughly 6,000 inmates and kept tabs on others the board released from prison with terms to abide by.
Today’s parole board has seven seats in a state with 32,000 inmates and thousands more supervised in the community.
It’s still a full-time job. Each member of the independent board might hear 25 cases in a day.
Yet while state statute requires the board to have seven members, two of the seats have been sitting vacant, one since June, the other since February 2014.
“That says to me that if you don’t have the seven people, then how good is the job being done?” said Mitchell, 68, who went on to be appointed to the U.S. Parole Commission by President George W. Bush, then reappointed by Barack Obama. “It’s a pressure-packed position for those people who take it very seriously in terms of a public safety issue.”
A vice chairman is also supposed to be in charge of the parole board’s operations, funds and expenditures. Currently, there isn’t a vice chairman.
As governor, Jay Nixon, a Democrat, is responsible for parole board appointments. The state Senate confirms them.
“The governor has been real slow in making his recommendations on appointments,” Senate President Ron Richard, R-Joplin, chairman of the gubernatorial appointments committee, said in an interview last week.
He said Nixon, who has also fallen behind by letting filled seats expire beyond the six-year term, should reappoint sitting members of the parole board and other boards if they are to remain.
Other critics, including people who held leadership positions for the Missouri Department of Corrections, want the parole board to be reformed.
They say it operates almost entirely in secret and has become a plum place for former lawmakers to land since term limits went into place. The position pays $83,574 a year, not counting retirement benefits. Members get access to state cars to criss-cross Missouri to attend hearings at the state’s 21 prisons.
Three out of the five current members served in the state Legislature. (The other two have law enforcement backgrounds, including a former sheriff.)
Others say the Missouri board is too hesitant in granting parole. In the past few years, the number of offenders on parole in the state has dropped to just over 16,000, from a peak of nearly 18,000.
Critics say that not only raises prison costs, but potentially threatens public safety. When an inmate leaves prison on parole, the state can keep tabs on him through drug screening, anger management and substance abuse programs. That’s not the case for those who walk out of the corrections system after completing their sentences.
Mitchell, who has trained parole boards, said former lawmakers have ended up on parole boards across the country.
“I found that finding a spot for a defeated or retired incumbent to rest their feet is not always a good thing,” he said. “There’s just a different kind of motivation.”
“You can get an individual in those kinds of positions who has a particular philosophical bend and are not very willing to take a broader view,” he added. “The wrong person in that job can be a real detriment.”
But he said it really depends on the individual. All former politicians don’t make bad parole board members.
Rather, Mitchell asked: “What is the litmus test in terms of the governor with that job?”
‘A LOT OF WORK’
Nixon, a former prosecutor, declined to comment through his spokesman Scott Holste. “The governor takes very seriously the responsibility of making nominations to the board for Senate approval, and is actively working to select qualified candidates,” Holste said by email.
He didn’t respond to concerns raised about the board’s performance and being stacked with former lawmakers.
According to state statute, no more than four board members can be part of the same political party. Currently, three are Democrats, two are Republicans.
While the number of filled seats is five, a majority vote is still needed among the parole board to take significant action on a case involving violent crime. Just one member of the board is required to hear and vote on cases involving property and drug crimes.
Ellis McSwain Jr., chairman of the parole board, wasn’t available for comment either, said David Owen, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Corrections.
The lack of public comment adds to the legacy of secrecy of a board that weighs anything from low-level felonies such as forgery to death penalty cases. Their meetings with inmates aren’t public. Nor are the reasons why parole board members vote the way they do.
“How do they make decisions in death penalty or clemency cases, or any cases?” asked Janet Barton, who retired in 2013 as the parole board’s operations manager. “You have a parole board that is advising the governor on the death penalty, but their votes are not public record.”
Barton, who worked for the parole board for more than three decades, recalled when members used to be promoted from within the corrections department.
“They were dedicated,” she said. “They believed that offenders could change, that parole served the best interest of public safety.”
Then, in the 1990s, she said former lawmakers started showing up “looking for a job that brought a tidy salary and some benefits to them. And the fact that it was in parole was secondary.”
Joseph Knodell has seen how parole board vacancies and politics mix. At the tail end of Gov. Matt Blunt’s administration, Knodell said, he was asked to briefly sit on the board. His stint lasted six months so that the outgoing governor could later fill the post with a trusted staffer.
“They were looking for places for people to land,” Knodell, 69, said. “That was OK. It’s a position that kind of wears on you. You are sitting across from murderers and rapists.”
Knodell, a former school superintendent near Poplar Bluff, said the job pays well compared to other state positions. He called it a “plum position” governors have at their disposal.
“(The seats) should be filled because there is a lot of work,” he said of the vacancies. “Believe it or not, when I say it is a plum position, there is still a lot of work involved.”
Richard Lee, who served on the parole board in the early 2000s, said he is “fearful” where Missouri is headed. He said the state needs a parole board with the professionalism to weigh the merits of each case, free of politics and with more transparency.
Most people who are sent to prison eventually return to the community. Lee said parole can be a tool to improve that transition.
“It’s hard to release a murderer, but you have to have the ability to do that,” said Lee, 61, whose background is in law enforcement. Otherwise, he said, people become institutionalized, unable to function on their own.
State figures show the parole board is granting parole in about 84 percent of cases. But critics say those figures offer an incomplete picture, because many are refused parole until the tail end of their prison term.
Lee said more attention is needed on the credentials of those on the board.
“I’d like to see some change in the parole board and the selection process,” he said. “I’d like to see standards for board members. I’d like to see them make it more of a diverse group.”
For years, he said Missouri was a leader in probation and parole.
“You saw a lot of people at the national level who had Missouri ties,” he said. “I hope we can continue to lead that path.”
‘WEIGHING THE RISKS’
In a meeting last week in Jefferson City, members of Empower Missouri, a social justice organization, said they also want parole board reform. “Our concern is there are people who could be released from prison without destroying our society,” Ted Schroeder, a former pastor in north St. Louis, said at the meeting.
Nicole Porter, of the Washington-based Sentencing Project, which advocates for alternatives to incarceration, said at the meeting via conference call that victims’ families often have heavy influence on whether an inmate is paroled.
“Punishment is one reason why prisons exist, but it’s not the only reason,” she said. “Parole boards should be about weighing the risks of whether or not potential parolees pose a risk to public safety.”
According to a draft copy of an Empower Missouri policy paper about parole, one in nine prisoners in Missouri is serving at least 50 years in prison.
Republican lawmakers have taken note.
“We don’t need to be building another prison, we need to be cutting some people loose who are in there for minute reasons,” House Corrections Committee Chairman Paul Fitzwater, R-Potosi, said in an interview. “We have a lot of nonviolent criminals who are locked up, and we are spending $25,000 to $30,000 a year to keep them housed.”
He said he recently worked hard to release Jeff Mizanskey, of Sedalia, who was 21 years into serving life without the possibility of parole for marijuana.
“We spent over $600,000 housing this guy on a marijuana charge,” Fitzwater said. “Now think about that.”
Nixon commuted Mizanskey’s sentence to life with the possibility of parole. The parole board heard his case this summer. He was released Sept. 1.
Rep. Caleb Jones, R-Columbia, is seeking changes to the parole system. Last legislative session, he filed a bill to put a two-week limit on the amount of time the board could spend to make a decision on each case.
Rep. Penny Hubbard, D-St. Louis, a former parole board member, encouraged Jones to lengthen the time requirement because of the heavy caseload. Sometimes they do 25 hearings a day with inmates, she said.
And then they need to review cases that other board members heard.
“If they are doing it fresh, without pressure and not being worn out, they make better decisions and can collectively review the cases and be fair,” Hubbard said.
The bill didn’t get out of committee, but Jones said he wants to try again.
His motivation isn’t to help inmates. Rather, it is to ease fears for crime victims waiting to hear if the offender who attacked them will be kept in prison or allowed to go free.
“As a victim myself, I understand how stressful that is,” Jones said.
Jones’ mother, Pam, was slain in 1991 in front of her family at a Christmas party.
The assailant, who also killed three law enforcement officials, was never up for parole. He was executed by the state in 2002.
Pam Jones was also the wife of Kenny C. Jones, the former sheriff and Republican state representative from central Missouri.
Kenny Jones is currently one of the five members of the parole board.