The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles is granting early release for prison inmates at its highest rate in more than 10 years, says the Houston Chronicle. The helps to postpone a prison overcrowding problem but puts more violent criminals back on the street. The percentage of parole-eligible inmates approved for release under parole supervision has nearly doubled in recent years, from a low of less than 17 percent in 1997 to more than 30 percent so far this year. Parole releases have risen while the state prison system has hovered near capacity. The higher approval rating keeps taxpayer costs down and relieves pressure on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to find space for newly convicted criminals.
Officials say that the board has not changed its standards for releasing criminals and the decision whether to release inmates is made on a case-by-case basis. “The No. 1 concern for the board is the safety of the people of Texas,” said Rissie Owens, chairwoman of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. “The major concern for us is, `Is this person going to re-offend?’ ” Attorneys and victims’ advocates are dubious. “They have notoriously used the parole board as a back-door gauge to control prison populations,” said Bill Habern, a lawyer who has spent more than 20 years representing inmates at parole hearings. “It’s hard for me to believe that the criminals being voted on for parole today are one iota different than the criminals that were being voted on five years ago.” Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said he has seen an increase in court cases in the past several years and attributes some of that to “retreads,” or criminals who have been cycled through the system numerous times. Victims’ advocates say more parolees means more crime. Robberies in Houston have risen more than 40 percent in recent years, from a 10-year low of 7,711 in 1998 to 10,985 in 2003. Kim Ogg of Houston Crime Stoppers said “it isn’t rocket science” to assume that the rise in robberies and the increase in parole releases are related.