Moderated by Tom Sabulis
AJC reporter Alan Judd recently examined how the state Board of Pardons and Paroles lacks oversight and keeps its decision-making details secret, even when restoring gun rights to violent offenders once they are released. Today, a First Amendment expert writes that the board needs greater scrutiny to meet its mission of operating in the public’s interest, while a gun rights’ advocate argues that those who have served their time should recover the right to own firearms.
Commenting is open.
Open up the parole board
By Hollie Manheimer
This newspaper’s recent reporting revealed Georgia’s Board of Pardons and Paroles dramatically increased the restoration of gun rights to felons in recent years and did so under the cloak of secrecy. That has stirred a public outcry, and appropriately so.
Surely the process of returning the right to possess weapons to convicted felons should be done carefully, openly and with an opportunity for input from victims, family members and other interested citizens. The fact that this process takes place behind closed doors with no accountability is a license for abuse.
But scrutiny of the secrecy surrounding the board should not end there. Various states around the country have been looking at the lack of transparency in their parole boards for years. The issue of prime concern to the First Amendment community is not whether any given defendant is released; rather, it is that the public knows almost nothing about the process of release.
For example, this past summer, when the death sentence of a convicted murderer was commuted at the 11th hour by the parole board, the Dawson County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution to go to the board asking that details of the commutation be released. The Georgia Sheriff’s Association also sent a letter seeking that information.
This newspaper has analyzed the secret proceedings of the parole board. While the board may be on legally solid ground, the policy reasons that belie such legality defy common sense.
The board purportedly has a mission to further public safety by reviewing, scrutinizing and limiting incarceration periods for convicted individuals. Yet looking at the bigger tapestry, a judge and jury listen to a trial in an open courtroom and make a public decision about a defendant. Why then, years later, should analogous decisions about that same defendant be made in a closed setting?
In its own rules and regulations, the parole board repeatedly cites the public’s interest. In reference to the commutation of sentences, the board’s rule purports to consider the “best interests of society.” In reference to withdrawing relief, the board’s rule nods to whether a decision is “in the public interest to do so.” Moreover, when the board issues an order, it notifies the parolee’s last known residence’s sheriff, district attorney and presiding judge. Even the board’s preamble rule notes that it should adopt and promulgate rules and regulations consistent with state law.
But while the state’s Open Meetings Act allows a narrow and limited exception for deliberations and votes for the parole board, all exceptions in the act should be narrowly construed, not broadly, as is the case with this board.
In short, the parole board gives lip service to the public interest. The reality is that the public knows very little about this board and its processes and procedures — and it needs to. On the flip side, the board has given no reason — even one to give lip service to — for its cloak of secrecy.
The term “public interest” is not merely a generality. An informed community is a better community, and the public needs information to make better decisions. To the extent the parole board commutes a sentence of a convicted felon, the defendant’s community wants to know why. To the extent the board does so, the crime victim wants to know why. The board reviews the sentences of defendants convicted of violent crimes, sex crimes, crimes against minors and crimes involving substances abuse and against property. And the board may decide to release these individuals.
Who but the public has a greater interest in knowing when, why and for what reasons a certain defendant is released to his former community? If this is not an interest of public safety — a term all too frequently and generally used — then what is?
Transparency becomes a popular concept usually upon the public’s discovery of some incident or other matter coming to light well after the fact, when the public has suffered some harm. Given the current closed nature of this particular state board, now is the time to push for a change in openness in its proceedings.
Hollie Manheimer is executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
Reformed citizens deserve their rights
By Jerry Henry
According to the Georgia government website, “The state Board of Pardons and Paroles grants paroles, pardons, reprieves, remissions and commutations. (Its members) are also responsible for restoring civil and political rights for released offenders.” It is their job to determine which ex-felons are eligible for a restoration of rights. There are statutes they must follow to faithfully carry out their mission.
Ex-felons who legally obtain their restoration of rights must follow established procedures set by state law. They must serve their sentences adjudicated by the courts and live a law-abiding life for five years before applying to obtain the rights enumerated in the state and U.S. constitutions. If all legal procedures are followed, those who do so should be granted their rights.
This is, and should be, a forgiving country. People who make mistakes should be given the opportunity to prove they have learned their lesson and changed their way of life. Not all felons are violent criminals, and some never used a firearm in a crime.
If ex-felons, violent or not, want a firearm, as usual the law will not deter them any more than the law deterred them when they committed their crimes. Ex-felons will have firearms if they want one. They are already initiated into the prison system and face no fear of returning. After all, it means they get to spend time with old friends at the taxpayer’s expense.
According to reports, anyone who has served time in our prison system has surely met and spent time with hardened criminals and, as such, has access to many criminal activities. Those who turn away from those temptations and return to a law-abiding way of life should be rewarded for doing so.
We know many criminals are armed. We hear in the media every day that a criminal who had an illegally obtained firearm has committed another crime. The criminal world has easy access to firearms as well as other illegal activities. These are ex-felons who have proven they will not abide by the law. They have continued their criminal ways and are not eligible for restoration of their rights.
To me, the question is not about the restoration of rights. I believe everyone should be given the opportunity to prove the punishment they endured left them not wanting to return to their previous way of life. We have seen many examples of people who have left lives of crime behind them and become productive members of society. I don’t believe any of us would want to deny all of them a restoration of rights. I believe they deserve the right to protect themselves should the need arise.
There are two questions I would ask.
First, is the Board of Pardon and Paroles doing its job properly? Each felon is supposed to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. If the board is not doing its job, perhaps its members should be replaced.
Second, if an ex-felon cannot be trusted with a firearm, why is he/she not still in prison? As stated previously, ex-felons who want a firearm will get one. It should be incumbent on members of the parole board to take all possible precautionary steps to ensure those they deem worthy of such rights will not be a menace to society.
Jerry Henry is executive director of GeorgiaCarry.org.