Get Out of Jail: An in-depth look at Georgia's parole process

Published: May. 23, 2016 at 7:20 PM EDT|Updated: May. 23, 2016 at 7:34 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - There has been a lot of public outrage lately as one violent inmate after another has been paroled from prison.

Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap said she does not feel this should be happening.

"I've met with a murder victim who said, 'My daughter is in a cemetery over on the east side. Her sentence was life. She's never coming back. And we believed in the criminal justice system and we believed when this person received a life sentence it was for life and I don't understand why he's now getting out.'  And, I can't explain that to them," she said.

Heap said often times the public can't understand why some offenders are allowed back on our streets without serving their full sentence.

Every state has a different system when it comes to pardons and paroles.

According to The Marshall Project, about half allow the board to have full authority. Georgia is one of those states. That means the board has the power to release most inmates before the end of their maximum sentence.

It says nearly all states have parole board hearings. Some hearing are open to the public, others are not. However, three states don't hold hearings at all. One is Georgia. That means board members don't get together to make parole decisions. They vote alone.

It also found more than half of the states won't show you what evidence and testimony they use to make their final decisions and Georgia is one of them.

That leaves Georgia and Texas as the only two states with full authority, no hearings, and secret files.

Yes, all of the information the board uses to make these decisions is classified as a state secret. So, the general public will never know exactly what the board was looking at when they made their determination. That is, unless they decide to declassify it.

"We have asked before. What are you looking at when you make a determination of parole? Could we see? And we were told no," said Heap.

So why is it a secret?

"That's an interesting thing," said Terry Barnard, chairman of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. "It's only a secret because it's our agency that's collectively bringing all of these reports but they come from somewhere and where they come from are not secrets such as the investigation, the court documents, all of those things are public records."

While we can't show you what specific information they consider in each case, we can show you, for the first time, their computer system.

Board Chairman Terry Barnard says their team complies that secret information and enters it into their system. One board member will then get the case.

He will look at things like the inmate's name, age, crime, behavior in prison, victim statements and more.

All of that information also goes through a risk assessment program determining how likely it is an inmate will be successful out on parole.

The board member then votes "yes" or "no" for parole, puts down notes about how they came to their decision, and all of that information is passed along electronically to another randomly chosen board member.

Once they have a majority vote, the process stops for that inmate, meaning in some cases not every board member will review the case. The board chairman said each board member can go through as many as 75 cases a day.

"The board is faced with a big work load," he said. "We only have five board members and I think about 13,000 a year."

Yes, 13,000 cases a year. So, what does this mean for Chatham County and our crime problem?

"Savannah does have a crime problem, but the problem is not parole," said Chairman Barnard. "Out of Chatham County which is well over 200,000 people, 900 of them are on parole."

"Parolees account for less than 3 percent of all arrests in Chatham County and of that 3 percent, 75 percent of that really involves parole technical violations, some misdemeanor arrests and city ordinance violations but really low level stuff," said Chris Barrett, executive director of State Board of Pardons and Paroles.

While that number may seem low, Metro police believe Savannah's worst crimes are being committed by only a handful of offenders.

Regardless, Heap says there should be what she calls truth in sentencing.

"If you receive five years, then it's five years. If you receive life, then it is life," said Heap.

"So, to state that "life" should mean "life", there is a sentence.  It's called 'life without parole.' That means life," said Barnard.

If you're wondering if prison over-crowding have anything to do with their decisions, Chairman Barnard said they have had to factor that in in the past; however, he said our prison population has gone down by more than 10,000 in recent years so it's not a problem now.

If you're thinking five people in Atlanta are making decisions that affect our community but they don't have a vested interest in us, you may be surprised to hear Chairman Barnard is from our community and still lives in McIntosh County.

To learn more about the members who make up the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles as well as the statutory guidelines the board follows when considering inmates for parole, click here.

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