On Jan. 22, Republican Terry Murphy stood in front of the Montana Legislature's Senate Judiciary Committee and showed off a green canvas shopping bag stuffed full of slightly crumpled handwritten letters.
"If I had printed out all of the emails," Murphy told his colleagues, "I would have another sack this size full, plus probably hundreds of hours of conversations."
Murphy's bag contained complaints against the Montana Department of Corrections, with many grievances specifically targeting the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole. That board is the subject of Senate Joint Resolution 3, which seeks legislative authority to study the parole board and weigh its possible elimination.
"I guess I'm a believer in the old adage," Murphy told the Judiciary Committee. "Where there's that much smoke, there has to be a fire someplace."
Murphy, who began his legislative tenure in 1971, has heard his share of constituent complaints over the years. But he says the criminal justice complaints have bothered him more than most. Now, as Murphy prepares to be termed out of office, he wants to do his part to ensure that Montanans who end up inside the state's criminal justice system are treated fairly.
"I think this study is very, very important," he says in an interview with the Independent about SJ 3.
Among the most troubling claims against the parole board, Murphy says, is that it places more strenuous requirements on offenders than sentencing judges.
"The inmates know they've done everything the judge told them to do," Murphy says. "And then, all of a sudden, the parole board is telling them to do a lot more stuff before they can qualify for a parole board hearing."
Other complaints about the board stem from the assertion that parole hearings are regularly pushed back to later dates, extending prison sentences. Inmates and their families are also angered by the fact that the board requires some individuals who haven't been convicted of sex crimes to take sex offender treatment programs as a condition of parole.
If SJ 3 passes and the legislature decides to eliminate the seven-member citizen parole board, the move would constitute a significant change for the thousands of people under its purview.
As it stands, state law requires offenders serve 25 percent of court-ordered sentences. Once a prisoner hits the 25-percent threshold, the parole board has the authority to release inmates into the communityor have the inmate continue to serve time. In other words, the board has the power to keep an inmate eligible for parole after two-and-a-half years serve a full 10.
Critics contend the board has too much power. It creates its own policies and parole standards and acts as an autonomous entity with no oversight from the Montana Department of Corrections.
According to a biennial report released by the parole board earlier this month, the oversight body is keeping inmates in custody for increasingly longer terms. In 2011, parole-eligible inmates served an average of 15 more months in direct supervision, including prison, prerelease centers and treatment programs, than they did in 1988.
As SJ 3 points out, the financial implications of keeping people in jail are significant. According to the bill, the state spends "over $90 per day to incarcerate an offender but only $5 per day to supervise an offender on parole."
During last week's judiciary hearing, Montana ACLU Public Policy Director Niki Zupanic and Steve Cape from the Montana Coalition for Safety and Justice were among SJ 3's supporters. Cape said that he is especially concerned about the parole board's autonomy and how it's impacting the state budget. "There is no oversight," Cape said at the hearing.
Parole Board Executive Director Fern Osler told the Independent that the board's autonomy is essential to maintain the integrity of Montana's criminal justice system. It's important to understand, she says, that the board evaluates every case on its individual merits, without respect to political whims or concerns that may arise about prison populations. "The parole board is making good decisions," she says.
Board members and staff are keenly aware of the impact that offenders leave on their victims, Osler says. They're also highly cognizant of how the people they release into society could impact others in the community.
Because of the parole board's caution, only 6 percent of those who are returned to prison for parole violations go back because they committed a new crime, Osler says. (The remainder is technical violations, such as using drugs or alcohol.)
Osler says that the complaints heard by the Law and Justice Committee stem from a relatively small number of people and that to study the oversight body "seems like a waste of resources." She told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that much of the testimony against the board "was based on non-factual information."
On Jan. 28, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed SJ 3 out of committee. It must now make its way through the full Senate and House of Representatives before the study can go forward.