HELENA — The state parole board may be starting to turn the corner on a shake-up that has seen the former chairman resign, laws passed to tighten oversight and a new chairman appointed to take the reins.
Gov. Steve Bullock named Helena attorney Mark Staples chairman on May 8 after appointing him as a board member in January.
He replaces Mike McKee, who served on the board for at least a decade and resigned in December amid complaints by inmates and families that decisions were inconsistent or too strict. McKee has maintained that the board should maintain its broad decision-making ability.
Staples said he doesn’t see the need to reinvent the wheel on board operations, but he addressed a previous complaint by lawmakers who said they thought some three-person parole hearing panels were chosen to achieve predetermined outcomes.
“I can tell you one thing … panels will not be hand-picked to reach any predetermined outcome, and I don’t believe they ever have been,” he said.
Treating board members as equals and embracing transparency is his plan.
“I’m not seeing being chair gives you some kind of imperial power,” he said. “I intend to bend over backwards to try to be as polite and straight-ahead as I can be.”
Some changes are in the works, however, with a package of bills signed into law by Bullock that will restrict some of the board’s decision-making authority. The measures came out of a legislative committee that studied the parole board for 18 months and heard a wide range of complaints.
One new law will place parole criteria in statute, which will allow lawmakers to make changes, while another takes final authority over clemency requests away from the board and gives it to the governor. A third requires all parole hearings to be recorded and made available to the public.
Staples said with decades of experience as a lobbyist, he respects the work of the Legislature and will back the new provisions.
“No one, I can guarantee, from what I’ve seen has anything to hide,” Staples said. “Everything will be recorded.”
Sandy Heaton, a retired mental health therapist who’s been on the board since March 2014, said Staples is well qualified to lead and is likable but even with a new leader and new laws, most of what she does will remain the same.
“Certainly they will make it easier for Montana people to be involved,” she said.
The board has also drawn increased attention with the high profile case of Barry Beach, who is serving a 100-year prison sentence for a 1979 murder he says he didn’t commit. Bullock has supported commuting Beach’s life sentence, but the board declined to forward Bullock the necessary clemency recommendation.
Staples said at this point he isn’t authorized to have an opinion on the matter.
“I like to think I’m very objective and very studious and take each case on its merits and will dig into it if I’m supposed to,” he said.
Republican Sen. Scott Sales of Bozeman, who served on the law and justice interim committee, said Staples is a positive addition to the board.
“He’s a very forward thinking type of individual and a very measured one as well,” Sales said. “As chairman I think he’ll bring good insight and fairness to it.”
Sales also said that although he’s never had much sympathy for inmates who complain about failing to get their sentences reduced, the process should be open.
“There was a feeling that they (inmates) weren’t getting a fair handshake and we took some measures toward transparency to take a closer look at the goings-on,” he said.
Staples said his philosophy is to balance the rules that are in place with the performance of an offender as assessed by professionals.
“I don’t want to keep a person incarcerated one minute more than they should be, but I don’t want to put the public at risk,” he said.
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