State of Parole: Effectiveness, efficiency up despite challenges, state officials say
by Jessica Loeding
Dec 29, 2013 | 4863 views | 0 0 comments | 83 83 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Officers from the Adairsville parole office, from left, Specialized Parole Officer T. Green, Assistant Chief of Parole Jim Burns and Chief Parole Officer Paul Parker, on  Dec. 17 discuss the residency verification of a parolee expected to be released soon. The offender was denied residency by the homeowner because of parole stipulations. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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When J.P. Kilgore got out of prison in March, he vowed never to go back.

And his last stint in Lee State Prison wasn’t Kilgore’s first — he’s served half a dozen sentences in the past 16 years — but the Cartersville resident says he’s a changed man.

“I have some issues. I have some deep-running emotional scars from childhood,” Kilgore said. “… The 2 1/2 years I did before [the last sentence], the year and a half I did before that coupled with this 8 1/2 years, almost nine years that I just did now, I’ve been gone a long time. I’m not the same person I used to be. True, I’ve had some mess-ups, but I had some issues. These issues needed to be addressed.

“… I don’t want to go back to prison. I don’t want to relive that experience again.”

The 37-year-old is working and getting substance abuse treatment. And one of the first people Kilgore credits with his success in the past 10 months is Keith Flemming — his parole officer.

Out on parole

Kilgore is one of 324 people in Bartow County listed on parole as of Sept. 12.

The Adairsville parole office, which covers Bartow and Gordon counties, handles roughly 550 cases. Staffed with eight employees — six parole officers, Assistant Chief of Parole Jim Burns and Chief Parole Officer Paul Parker — the location’s average caseload per officer is in the high 70s.

“… Our responsibilities are … to assist them to readjusting in the community, to be productive, get a job, have a stable residence, go to treatment programs that we deem necessary,” Parker said. “… And, for those few who will not comply, what we try to do is apply progressive sanctions, try to start out as low sanctions as we can, and … if they do something bad that merits revocation right off the bat, that’s what will happen if that’s in the best interest of public safety.”

Inmates in Georgia are statutorily eligible for parole after serving one-third of their sentence, although the State Board of Pardons and Paroles says few are actually granted parole on the initial eligibility date. With the exception of inmates serving non-life sentences for a serious violent felony — rape, child molestation and armed robbery among others — and those convicted of a fourth felony or sentenced to life without parole, inmates are automatically considered for parole.

The process differs from probation — the two are often confused — in that parolees must serve a portion of a prison sentence before becoming eligible for supervised release. Once out on parole, offenders are classified by level of supervision.

“We actually have four levels of supervision. We have specialized — those are the cases [Officer] Thomas [Green] deals with primarily. As far as the field is concerned, they are seen at least twice a month in the field at their residence, work, anyplace that he needs to see them at,” Burns said. “Then we have high cases and then we have standard cases, and we have contact cases. Each case is basically put at the level that person seems to be able to function at. We see them according to the level that they are at.”

The supervision level determines the minimum number of face-to-face meeting officers must have with the parolee and the number of collateral contacts, or meetings with family, employers or by phone. Parolees may change supervision levels based on their ability to follow release requirements.

“We require the officers to see the parolees as needed, the minimum number and then as needed,” Parker said. “You may see one parolee five times in one month because he needs it. I would rather spend five times on someone who needs it than another case that’s doing great, working a full-time job, is in treatment, and I’d rather you focus on the one that’s, what we say, has red flags showing.”

Revocation and recidivism

Determining the appropriate course of action once those red flags fly comes down to public safety for the local chief of parole.

“… We just have to make a determination whether we think the response should be revocation, and we’re basing that off of public safety. You know, if someone’s out there committing violent acts, we cannot have that. That’s a risk to public safety,” Parker said. “If we look at someone and maybe they’ve committed a new offense that’s all around securing drugs for personal drug use because of an addiction they have, well maybe right now is not the best time to revoke them. Maybe we need to get them into a long-term treatment center, and if they decide to walk away from the treatment center and go on the run, well, you missed your chance.

“…. Sometimes, even though they may have a new felony offense, but if we can see what the issue [is], it might be something we can work on. … Sometimes we’ll go talk to them and they’ll just tell us, ‘I don’t want your help. I just want to go back.’ … Sometimes they’ll just tell you anything you want to hear to try to get out.”

Parole revocations by the state remained between 2,500 and 3,700 yearly for the decade spanning 2002 to 2012, Pardons and Paroles annual reports indicate. The highest level of revocations occurred in 2005 with 3,684 (see table on Page 9C), reaching a 10-year low in 2011 with 2,594.

Kilgore, who admits to relapses since his release, said Flemming’s approach to handling the transgressions make all the difference.

“I value his opinion. … I don’t hide nothing from him. I learned a long time ago that, dealing with parole or probation, honesty is the best policy because, I mean, no one likes to get lied to or played a fool. He’s such a down-to-earth person that when he talks to me … he talks to me like I’m a person, not a number,” he said. “… It first started, I was a teenager and I did some stupid things. I’ve never repeated those incidents ever again. I learned from that, but I continued on with my drug use. ... I’m grateful for the chief — Paul Parker — and my parole officer, Keith Flemming, for having enough belief in me not to send me back because it could be so easy to say, ‘Alright, you know what? You’re becoming a headache.’”

Like Kilgore, roughly half — 161 of 324 — of Bartow County parolees are repeat offenders through the Georgia Department of Corrections.

The recidivism rate for the state has held steady at 30 percent for most of this decade, according to the 2011 report by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians. That is despite a growing prison population — from 2000 to 2011, Georgia’s inmate numbers increased 35 percent — and corrections spending. The state pours approximately $1 billion into the corrections system per year, more than double what it spent in 1990, the report stated.

Parker believes recidivists have become “numb to the lifestyle.”

“I guess they get accustomed to it. All of a sudden, going to prison is not a big deal because they’ve already done it two or three times. The families seem to be accustomed to it, and they don’t get as offended as they used to, I guess. They don’t turn their backs on them.”

The criminal justice system — from law enforcement to the courts to corrections and beyond — battles the repeat-offender issue at every level.

“Not only do you see repeat offenders, you start to see family members. I’ve been a prosecutor long enough that I’ve seen parents and now I’ve got children coming through,” Cherokee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Rosemary Greene said. “… It’s just a cycle. I mean drug abuse is a cycle. Domestic abuse is a cycle. … That’s what children grow up knowing, that’s what they’re going to do when they grow up, so it’s important to hopefully stop that in the beginning.”

“Back in the early ’90s, I would have people that you’d almost have a welcome-home party when they came [back from prison],” Parker said. “We still see that some nowadays. We’ll have two or three generations of people where the father is … probably in his early 60s and he’s got a son who has a son and they’re all on parole. So it’s kind of a lineage — they pass it down.”

“We try to take steps to alleviate the problem. My stance as a prosecutor has always been, crime does not get easier,” Greene added. “I mean, the first time you’re sentenced may be this, and the second time it’s going to be more than that. Now, there are always extenuating circumstances that change that …, but crime should not get easier. We employ recidivists’ paperwork to make sure that people are, you know, punished to the fullest extent that we can when we see someone who comes in here with lengthy criminal histories.”

Trending now

While some things never change, some do.

The demographics of the parole population evolve to reflect the corrections system, as does the offenses for which they were incarcerated.

From 2000 to 2013, the average age of a Georgia inmate went from just under 35 to pushing 38, according to data from the Department of Corrections Friday Report in October 2013.

The report states the “aging inmate population” is the result of increased use of alternative measures in dealing with teenage offenders and a surge in middle-aged male sex offenders “due to the expanding ‘It’s OK to tell’ ethos.” Perhaps more importantly, the “get tough on crime” movement of the 1980s and ’90s placed offenders behind bars longer.

“Offenders don’t seem to be stopping like they used to. When I first started, I think if they hit 40, 45, you start to see some guys say, ‘I’m tired of it. I don’t want to go to prison anymore,’” Parker said.

Today, the average age for a parolee in Bartow County is just under 40 — 39.64.

“… What’s helping it is, with your aging population you have a lot of inmates that went into the system and they were serving longer in the system. They truly were aging out in the system,” Georgia Executive Director of Parole Michael Nail said. “That continues to be a challenge. But, for parole purposes, the challenge with those populations is certainly not as great as it may be for the correctional system having to house them.”

Not only are offenders aging, they are increasingly female.

Women represent the fastest-growing segment of the prison population and local parole officers noticed the same in supervision cases.

“We’ll talk at times, it seems the women are catching up to the men in exercising their right to violate the law and have the addiction issues,” Parker said.

Specialized Parole Officer Thomas Green said dealing with changing demographics comes down to finding what works for the parolee.

“You’ve got to find out what motivates them. … Sometimes it’s their kids. Sometimes, with the older population, it’s, you know, ‘My mom and dad are not in the best of health, so I’m going to try to stay out to be there for them like I haven’t been,’” he said.

Although their appearance may change, the reasons parolees are in the system have not.

“In 24 years the basic issue I’ve had with offenders that entire time has been substance abuse. … It all depends on the part of the state you go into as to what the most abused item [is],” Parker said. “I know when I started it was all alcohol and cocaine. Where I worked at, it was very rural, so it was mainly the abuse of Budweiser, which wasn’t considered drinking in Houston County. They didn’t drink whiskey anymore, all they drank was beer. It was a lot of habitual violators, a lot of things done while drunk, intoxicated.

“Then some people had the cocaine addiction. Then I saw the crack cocaine come in, and that was the main issue. … All of a sudden everything is meth-related. … Then everyone thinks that using marijuana today is like drinking a beer or something. It’s kind of a social thing with low social stigma.”

According to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles’ proposed 2014 budget, the number of parolees completing drug treatment once begun went from 8,689 in 2009 to 10,018 in 2010 before dropping drastically to 4,973 in 2012.

Substance abuse classes, Kilgore said, are a godsend.

“Parole has helped me. The drug classes help. The talks help,” he said. “… Part of parole, they want you to rehabilitate yourself and work yourself back into society, be a contributing member of society.”

Rising rolls

Indeed, more offenders are returning to society.

Unlike the prison population, the state’s parole population grew only 9 percent from 2000 to 2011, the council’s criminal justice reform report stated.

In 2002, the Board of Pardons and Paroles released 10,271 onto parole. The number went to 13,983 in 2011 and dropped down to 12,606 in 2012. The total number of people under supervision remained relatively unchanged. According to the FY2014 budget recommendation, the total number of parolees under supervision from 2009 to 2012 averaged 37,735.

Likewise, the average caseload per officer also increased. The board reported an average caseload went from 74 in 2009 to 84 in 2012.

“You’re looking at about 27,000 that are under parole supervision. Ironically it had remained rather flat up until about two years ago and then it has had an increase,” Nail said. “… What is creating those increases is some of the efficiencies that we have implemented here over actually the past three years. The processes that were in place sometimes folks were not given parole as quickly simply because we didn’t have the efficiencies in place. We went to an electronic voting system. All the files are electronic now, so there are greater efficiencies. The board is able to make a decision earlier in the process. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be released earlier, but they’re able to make that decision earlier in the process.”

Those efficiencies appear to be affecting the local jail.

“… We’ve been running somewhere between 100 and 150 inmates below our norm, which is crazy for this time of year. And it’s been running that way for 18 months or two years. I kept looking into that to see why. I finally figured out it’s because the state is picking all their prisoners, which they’ve never done — ever,” said Bartow County Jail Administrator Maj. Gary Dover. “So, at any given time, like the last two months, we charge, once they’re sentenced, we charge them to keep them once their packet is accepted by the Department of Corrections. Well, for the last two months, for the first time since I’ve been there in 20-something years, they have not owed us any money, which is really, really weird. …

“There’s only one way they can do that. They haven’t added thousands and thousands of beds and they haven’t employed more thousands and thousands of officers. They’re turning them out — that’s the only thing I can see. So they’re actually dumping more of those out to get these guys in. … To save money I assume the state is starting to turn to that, and the only way to get their beds empty is to kick the guys in there out.”

The process goes like this: State inmates sentenced to two or more years and scheduled to go to prison are housed at the local jail. They must go through a process called “diagnostics,” which is completed at Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. Fifteen days after the Department of Corrections receives and accepts the sentence packet on the inmate, the person belongs to the state, which must then begin paying Bartow County a boarding fee for that offender.

Dover said the average cost per day to house an inmate is $32, give or take 50 cents. The state reimburses $22 per day per inmate until the offender is picked up by the DOC or paroled.

“As far as resources go it actually helps with the numbers being low,” he said. “It lessens the burden on my staff and the infrastructure of the building. From a financial standpoint, it hurts our bottom line a bit because I can remember some months the state would reimburse us up in the neighborhood of $50,000. But, if you actually figure in the amount it takes to house each prisoner, we lose money housing for the state.”

Going virtual

Perhaps the largest change and one of the factors in improving efficiency was the parole system’s shift to “virtual offices.”

In late 2012, the state agency began closing brick-and-mortar locations and shifting to a more mobile system. As of Friday, only 13 of 41 locations listed a physical address. Adairsville’s office is one of the virtual locations, although the Bartow and Gordon County sheriff’s offices and the probation office on Postelle Street allow parole officers to use space as needed.

“The effect it has had is it puts the officers’ focus more in the field, which is what we are about anyway — field supervision, more contact with the offenders, more contact with law enforcement. It’s really been a positive experience,” Parker said of the move. “I was not sure how it was going to go after 20-something years. You get used to something that’s a habit and I really find it enjoyable. … I tell you one of the things it does: it kind of takes away from any distractions. I know I can focus a lot more on work-related issues and get a lot more work done.”

Field supervision is one area where Nail said the state documented improvements after the virtual move.

“As a matter of fact, we just recently did a review and we saw that our field contacts had increased with the offender, but also our collateral contacts have increased,” he said. “… It also has allowed officers more time to spend with the offender or with others discussing the progress of the offender. And it’s also given them more time in the day to do that. … That was one of the things that we knew as we increased our efficiencies in clemency and releases increased, we knew caseloads would increase, and so we implemented a couple of strategies to help address that.”

According to the 2014 budget recommendation data, the number of face-to-face contacts per parolee dropped from 447,234 in 2009 to 312,123 in 2012.

A portion of that drop may come from the use of AnyTrax, a voice recognition supervision program. Burns said 97 cases through the local office use the system.

Two months ago, the state also began using virtual technology to hold final parole hearings after testing the process on preliminary hearings.

“… What typically would take a day for them to handle a final hearing with travel time and transporting the parolee, we have eliminated that down to about an hour of their time, so it’s been very, very positive. Of course that has freed up time to supervise the cases out in the field,” Nail said.

In addition to becoming more efficient, the changes brought financial benefits.

“There are [financial benefits] without a doubt. One thing I’ve always tried to make clear and our team here has tried to make clear is we never went virtual to save money. We went virtual to enhance the quality of supervision and just so happened … the savings were a byproduct,” Nail said. “The first year we were able to cut $1.5 million, and we were required to reduce our budget and our virtual office plan was set on a three-year plan. But, because of the budget cut, what we did is we advanced that plan from three years, we compressed it down to one year to make it happen.”

Challenges remain

While the state maintains the system has improved efficiency and effectiveness — look at the state’s 72 percent completion rate for parolees in 2012 compared to the nation’s 52 percent — others aren’t so sure.

Take, for example, the case of Edgar Ortega Maldonado.

In 2005, Maldonado was charged through Bartow and Gordon counties with trafficking methamphetamine — a felony, possession of a firearm or knife during the commission of a crime, possession of meth with intent to distribute, possession of MDMA with intent to distribute, two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, and concealed weapon. According to the DOC website, Maldonado’s longest sentence was 10 years each on the trafficking and intent to distribute charges.

He went into prison on Aug. 16, 2006, and was released on parole Dec. 9, 2009. Statutorily he had served the required one-third of his sentence before becoming eligible for parole.

The parole board, in its order, remanded Maldonado over to the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be deported.

Fast forward to October 2011. Maldonado and two other suspects lead authorities on a pursuit, firing on a Georgia State Patrol trooper and a Bartow County Sheriff’s Office deputy, before fleeing on foot. The three were captured in Cherokee County after a manhunt by several area agencies.

Maldonado went back to prison in November 2012, with the harshest sentence being 20 years on aggravated assault charges for firing at officers.

“I get the parole notices from the federal government and the state as most everybody does. I look at them and they start off with some kind of traffic offense…, and then it’s some kind of theft and then it’s some kind of drug-related [charge]. There’s generally, 70 percent of the time there’s a drug-related charge in there … It’s drugs, it’s armed robbery, it’s aggravated assault, it’s some kind of domestic violence,” Cartersville Police Chief Tommy Culpepper said. “… It builds up and then the person on the street, the officer out there riding in the car they think, ‘Well, I just locked that guy up last week for, you know, armed robbery. Why is he back out on the street?’ There’s nowhere for them to go.

“The idea is parole has a shorter string on them, you know. Once they’re out, they’re out. If you want to comply, you’ll comply. There’s always going to be those that … are going to go and do what they want to do.”

Breaking the cycle

Regardless of who you ask in the criminal justice system, the answer is never simple and usually comes down to ending the cycle of criminal behavior in a person or a family.

“It’s got to start at the community level … I think. What we’ve been talking about is something that breaks the cycle of recidivism, and it goes way deeper. … It goes back to when they were kids and they didn’t have the right family life,” Dover said. “… It’s easy to fall into that cycle, and somewhere along the line someone’s got to intervene for them and teach them there’s other ways to do that.”

“The same dynamics that are occurring in society occur inside the penal systems. There’s greed and lust and anger and hate and frustration and, you know, lack of education and just don’t care and all of that applies. It affects us because it puts people back on the streets. I realize at some point people are going to get out and come back on the street, but when I get a parole notice that tallies up 35 or 40 years of sentenced time and their service time is five, seven, 12 years, it makes you wonder, ‘Shouldn’t we have truth in sentencing?’” Culpepper said. “… I’m a big believer in that. I think that solves a lot of the problems because I believe you can rehabilitate, but those recidivists, you gotta look, they keep getting in trouble. Is it because somebody’s not told them, ‘Hey, don’t do that’? I don’t think that’s the case. I think they know very well what’s acceptable and not acceptable in society. There’s no accountability. We want to hold the penal systems accountable for what somebody did to get in there; we don’t necessarily as a society right now hold that individual accountable for what they did.”

Personal accountability is the first step for Kilgore.

“I have my own relationship with God. … What helps for me is going to these meetings,” he said. “…My relationships for me are: God, father, husband, man. I have to own my place. I have to embrace that and it has to come in those orders.”

The Georgia General Assembly in 2011 created the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians, and as a result of the council’s work, Gov. Nathan Deal in May 2012 signed into law HB 1176, which offered reforms for the corrections system.

Among the council’s recommendations were expanding supervised release programs and community-based initiatives.

“With greater investment in these and other programs and expansion to additional sites to serve more offenders, the state can reduce recidivism and create viable sentencing options for judges that can achieve better public safety outcomes at a lower cost,” the council’s 2011 report stated.

“We’ve seen some of the positive effects [of the legislation] so far, especially in community-based treatment services when you talk about substance abuse and things of that nature,” Nail said. “I think one of the biggest things that came out of it is they didn’t cut anything in those areas. That sends a positive message and like I said at the beginning of it when we were allocated some additional parole officer positions. So it has been positive for us in that regard.”

Looking ahead, Nail said parole will continue to face challenges with supervision and addressing the state’s focus on reintegrating offenders into society.

“… I think as parole moves forward you’ll start to see a more hardened population, if you will, in the prison system. And the way we look at our business is, in the next five years, all we’ve got to do is look at who’s in prison now. As you start seeing that prison population harden, you’ve gotta address your supervision strategies and techniques accordingly,” he said. “Then I think also, and this challenge isn’t a challenge in a negative way, but the whole re-entry component that is a focus of the governor now. That’s an exciting time. It’s going to be a positive challenge, if you will, because that’s gonna get all facets of re-entry collaborating at the community level as well as the state level and law enforcement level.”

For law enforcement, the question becomes: who’s footing the bill?

“… Are they saying we are going to have to push that down and let the county take care of it and y’all are going to have to fund that? We’re just going to dump them in your community and you deal with them. Or it’s going to come with a program. Now, if it doesn’t come with a program — and everybody knows dollars are tight now and I can’t see the state saying, ‘Let’s open more community programs and here’s the funding to go with it,’” Culpepper said. “You can’t just say we are going to treat them in the community, you know, we are going to get them out of the system, get them back in the community, re-acclimate them, if there’s not some mechanism there to do it with.

“… I’m not a sociologist by any stretch of the imagination, you know, [but the answer is] obviously a combination of those programs, community programs, treatment programs and incarceration. But we are so reticent to incarcerate now. We don’t want to build more jails. Well, fact is, we probably need more if all we are going to do is, the state’s going to get them from the counties and turn around and release them so the state’s not on the hook for the expense of maintaining. Some type people need to go learn the lesson the hard way but that’s just a simple fact of life.”

Finding a support system

When Kilgore comes off parole in August, which falls in line with the state average of two years on parole, he will begin 25 years of probation.

Throughout the process, Kilgore says he leans heavily on his wife and those in his support system.

And support is vital to a parolee’s success, he adds.

“My wife is the one who comforts me in the middle of the night with my nightmares. … My parole officer and her have been my support system,” Kilgore said. “If you don’t have family or your family has washed their hands of you, then there’s people out there … My parole officer is part of my recovery and my support system. I let him know that [Thursday], too. I said, ‘I don’t know if you realize this or not, I value our conversations.’ … That breaks a barrier down and lets me know — he don’t become a badge, he becomes a person. Now I can say that for every one of them? No. I got lucky.”

His advice for others: believe in yourself and give parole a shot.

“You have to give it a shot. You have to believe in yourself enough to give yourself a shot. You may have this stickler PO — it’s only temporary,” he said. “… Give them a chance. Parole is here to help you. They don’t want to send you back to prison. Paroles and pardons board is there to get you out. Is it always as fast and speedy as you’d like it to be? No, it’s not. What is? That red light on Main Street kills me. But it’s there. It does its job.”