A five-member parole board is one of the most powerful players within Alaska's criminal justice system, yet generally operates out of view. 

Wednesday, the board's annual public meeting offered a somewhat rare chance for members of the public to observe the board's operations, ask questions and give input. 

According to an annual statistical report, Alaska's Board of Parole held 953 discretionary parole hearings in 2018. During those hearings, which are often held inside Alaska's Department of Corrections facilities and are not open to the public, the board makes decisions about who will be granted an early release. 

Wednesday, discussion between members of the board and meeting attendees focused on what factors are considered in those decisions and who has input. 

A staffer to Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, asked how often a victim of crime has a say in whether an individual is released. 

Board vice chair Sarah Possenti said, "Not enough." 

Board staff estimate members hear from victims in roughly 15% of hearings but said it's not a trend that is tracked, and it's difficult to know for sure due to the multiple ways victims can participate: in person, via telephone and through written statements. 

"We don't have enough participation," Possenti said. "There's a lot of cases that we see that we don't hear from the victims. I think it would round out some of those cases to also hear from that side." 

Terria Vandenhuerk, who formerly served time in Alaska and is married to a someone currently incarcerated, described herself as a social and restorative justice advocate. She wanted to know whether board members take positive accomplishments into account when deciding whether to release people early. She also expressed frustration with the lack of access to rehabilitation resources for people who are incarcerated and struggling with addiction. 

"The reality is that we have lots of drugs in our institutions, so when somebody gets a dirty [urine analysis] and they go before the parole board, they get denied," she said. "So as somebody in long-term recovery myself, nearly 15 years, I know that you don't place somebody in the trap house and expect that they're going to stay clean and sober." 

Possenti said the board is frustrated with the lack of treatment options too, especially for those serving time in maximum security but stressed that the decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and often include infractions more serious than failing a drug screening.  

"When they come before us and clearly need treatment but their behaviors are so out of control in the institutions that they're now closed out, or they're in segregation, we can't then justify releasing them early to get the treatment when they're wreaking havoc on the inside," said Possenti. 

The parole board has released data reports for 2018 that include the following statistics: 

  • Of the 953 discretionary parole hearings held in 2018, early release was granted in 36.8% of the time. 
  • In 2017, the board held 629 discretionary parole hearings and granted release 56.6% of the time. 
  • The most common crime categories for the discretionary parole candidates in 2018 were assault, theft/vehicle theft, other and drugs. 
  • The board considered 940 parole violation reports in 2018, and 920 of them resulted in a decision to revoke parole. 
  • 73% (roughly 670 people) of individuals whose parole was revoked were out on mandatory parole. 
  • 611 people completed their supervision in 2018.

Parole board chair Edie Grunwald was excused from attending the meeting, as she was in Fairbanks Wednesday for the trial of Bradley Renfro, one of four teens accused of murdering her son, David Grunwald, in 2016. 

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