Texas lawmakers study possible parole system consolidation
By Mike Ward Austin American-Statesman
More than 20 years after Texas limited the responsibilities of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to approving or denying cases not supervising parole officers or parolees a new state report is sparking debate about whether to expand the agency’s duties again.
Such a change, if approved, would be the biggest shift in Texas’ corrections system in decades — and the idea has sparked a turf war between the parole board and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs state prisons and currently supervises parole officers.
Texas has more than 75,000 men and women on parole, one of the largest such systems in the United States. Although parole decisions and cases generally are not public, several examples have surfaced in the past year in which the parole board voted to impose restrictions on convicts as a condition of their release, and then a parole officer later modified or removed that condition without the parole board ever knowing about it.
In other cases, restrictions were imposed on parolees by the parole division without the parole board approving.
“This has been going on for some time,” said Bill Habern, a prominent Huntsville parole attorney. “It causes confusion, both for the parolees and the officers. The solution is to unify the roles of the two agencies and have one captain in charge of the ship.”
A study released early this month by the Sunset Advisory Commission examined continuing complaints about conflicting decisions by the parole board and the parole division that have landed both agencies in court and drawn criticism from legislative leaders.
The Sunset Commission — which periodically reviews agencies to determine if they should be reauthorized, reconfigured or discontinued — recommended that no changes be made.
The “analysis did not find significant problems, certainly none large enough to recommend dismantling the functions, nor were there significant cost savings related to an alternative structure,” according to the commission’s report.
The report found that most of the problems stemmed from poor communication between the agencies and urged the agencies’ managers to resolve those problems.
Before 1989, the parole board was totally in charge of the state’s parole process — supervising parole officers who supervised the parolees, as a separate agency with a separate budget and mission from the prison system, then known as the Texas Department of Corrections.
That year, to create what was then termed a “seamless” system of criminal justice, the Legislature put parole officers under the new Texas Department of Criminal Justice and left the parole board — a separate agency created by the Texas Constitution — as a scaled-down entity that voted on paroles and clemency requests.
Continuing issues between parole and prison officials have played out several times in courtrooms, where judges have criticized the two agencies for making overlapping and sometimes contradictory decisions about the conditions of parole for a convict.
The agencies have also been blasted for taking conflicting legal positions on convicts’ rights to a parole hearings.
The Sunset Commission’s governing board, made up of 10 lawmakers and two citizen members, is expected to vote on the staff report in September.
“It looks to me to be a communication issue,” said state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican who chairs the Sunset Commission. “They need a plan that says, ‘Here’s how we’re going to communicate.’”
Other legislative leaders said that while the idea of re-forming a separate parole agency is intriguing, they are far from ready to endorse it.
“In some respects, we have a strange setup: The parole board makes the tough decisions, and the parole division of another agency monitors and supervises those decisions,” said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, a member of the Sunset Commission.
“I know there’s people who think all parole functions should under the parole board. I’m listening, but I haven’t been convinced that we should undo the consolidation we did in 1989.”