Idaho prisons and parole: Who's granting inmates freedom?

Idaho prisons and parole: Who's granting inmates freedom?

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) - At any given time the Idaho Department of Correction oversees about 8,000 offenders. More than 2,000 of them come up for parole each year. And a commission of five people will decide their fate. 

It's a part time job with full time consequences. But you may be surprised to know who makes up the commission.

In Idaho, it's parole by your peers.

"You literally have people's lives in your hands," says Olivia Craven, executive director of the Idaho parole and pardon commission. "And you better make a good decision; the right decision for the public. Public safety is the first consideration the commission makes."

But for all that responsibility, you might think each member has a legal or criminal science background. That's not the case. In fact, Craven says, in her 27 years as the executive director the parole commission has been made up by everyone from teaching faculty to farmers.    

By law, the governor appoints the executive director and the commissioners. Only a maximum of three commissioners can be from any one political party.

When Idaho first became a state, the parole commission didn't even exist. A warden decided who would get paroled and when.

Nowadays, a hearing is held by a commission of three. The decision to grant or deny parole has to be unanimous. If denied, the inmate can appeal to the full five-person commission. In that case, only a majority is needed for parole.

Over the past five years, more than half of all Idaho inmates up for parole have been granted release. But no matter what the commission decides, someone is usually upset with board's ruling. 

"I can tell you for every decision we make, someone is unhappy about it," Craven says.

"You do the best you can," says Mike Matthews, currently the commission's longest serving member. "It's kind of like my coaching background. Every time the referee made a call he made 50 percent of the people mad. I spent 19 years doing that so I'm just carrying on doing the same thing."

Matthews is finishing his ninth year on the commission. He's a former school principal and spent 35 years in education.   

Each commissioner is appointed to a three-year term. They're typically in session nine days a month for eight months, and one week a month for four months. They get $200 for each day they actually decide cases. That works out to just over $18,000 a year.

Commissioners review a packet of information on a case before they see an offender, but they almost always do that on their own time, and don't get paid for it. The hearing itself then includes a question and answer session with the inmate.

"You can't get caught up in the emotion," says Matthews, "because you don't know if they're telling you the truth. On the other hand, there are those that are telling you the truth."

Matthews says seeing an inmate return to prison after being granted parole is the most difficult part of the job, but he says he doesn't have any sleepless nights over decisions he's made in the past.

"Thank goodness I was in education and I learned to leave everything at school and I'm pretty good about leaving it here," says Matthews. "When I leave here it's done, it's over."

"You're dealing with people's lives, and it's a serious business," says Craven. "It's the ultimate, I think, in public service."

Recently, KBOI 2News sat in on several sessions of parole hearings at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution. Although we were not permitted to shoot video of the sessions, we were given an interview afterward with an inmate who was granted parole.

Floyd Lay is serving a six-year sentence for possession of a controlled substance. He has only 10 months left on his term, but decided to apply for parole. The decision wasn't automatic. He considered simply finishing out his time, because the conditions of parole are strict, and a violation could send him back to prison. He could have served the remainder of his time and be released without restrictions in February, 2013. 

In the interview, (which you can watch below), Lay explains why he sought parole, what he thinks about the parole commission, and what he hopes is next for his life.

Do you think the state should have stronger requirements for who sits on the parole board?Join the Discussion on the KBOI-TV Facebook page.