NewsLocal News

Actions

After heat from state leaders, Nebraska’s parole board now showing up at hearings

Board attendance spiked in spring 2022, after a Flatwater Free Press story showing spotty attendance. It spiked again this year, after the Nebraska Legislature got involved.
leadillustration.jpg
Posted at 5:55 PM, May 06, 2023

Something “interesting” happened, says Sen. Terrell McKinney, after the public and state lawmakers learned that members of Nebraska’s parole board rarely showed up together for parole hearings.

The board members started attending more hearings.

This year, the board’s five members have appeared together at hearings twice as often as they did in 2021, according to a Flatwater Free Press analysis of data requested from the state.

Board attendance spiked in spring 2022. That came after a Flatwater Free Press story showing that, in the three previous years, the board had recorded votes from all five members at only 37% of its hearings.

And board attendance spiked again this year, soon after McKinney introduced a bill meant to curtail the number of times a parole board member can miss a vote.

In the two months after that bill’s introduction, 63% of parole candidates had their cases heard by the full board. That’s the first time in five years that parole candidates have had a higher chance of presenting their case to the full, rather than partial, board.

050523ParoleBoard Graphic.jpg

The board decides whether to allow an incarcerated Nebraskan to serve the remainder of their sentence outside prison after they become eligible, and sets terms for their parole.

Parole board members and staff interviewed for this story believe there’s no connection between increased attendance, the bill and the previous FFP story published in March 2022. They cited COVID-19, the death of family members and board chair Rosalyn Cotton’s sick leave as the main reasons for the spotty attendance in the past.

“I actually think that the data set you're looking at is more the anomaly instead of the pattern,” said Nicole Miller, the board’s legal counsel, in an interview. “Honestly, 2023 is probably more representative.”

McKinney, an Omaha Democrat, had a one-word response when presented with the new Flatwater Free Press analysis showing improved attendance by the full parole board: “Interesting.”

Board member attendance does matter, an analysis of the past five years shows.

When all five members were present and voting, the board granted parole 62.6% of the time in the past five years.

When only three or four members were present – enough for a quorum – the board paroled only 56.4% of the cases it heard.

This persistent gap could have kept nearly 200 parole-eligible prisoners behind bars longer between 2018 and 2021, costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars during those three years, the analysis showed.

And that parole rate gap persisted into 2023, as the state continues to grapple with prison overcrowding and makes plans to build a new $350 million prison.

“You got poor attendance, and then you got declining parole rate. It all goes together,” McKinney said. “We have to figure out a system to make it work, and it's not helpful that the parole board hasn't been doing the best of their abilities as far as ... their jobs in a sense.”

dist11_01.jpg

Board members interviewed by the Flatwater Free Press said they do their best to show up at hearings and always make the three-member quorum needed for a hearing to proceed.

Cotton said she was on medical leave at various points in 2021 and 2022. She missed the most hearings of any board member during the five-year period examined by the Flatwater Free Press.

“There is no problem with our hearings,” she said. “I have been gone on medical and I don't need to tell the world that I'm out on medical as long as we have a quorum.”

Board members also said that their absence from a hearing shouldn’t be interpreted as them not doing parole board work.

In one instance last month, Cotton and fellow board member Mark Langan were conducting parole reviews in York, while the rest of the board started hearings in Lincoln, because the board tried to get both done, Langan said. Then they rushed to Lincoln to attend the rest of the hearings that day.

Langan, a former Omaha police detective, said he was confident in his own attendance, which has long been the best on the current board. He missed 12.7% of the hearing days between 2019, when he was appointed, and when the FFP story published March 2022. He has missed only 5.5% of hearing days since March 2022.

He said the Flatwater Free Press story and McKinney’s bill didn’t affect how often he appeared at his job, citing the waning of the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason his attendance improved.

“In a perfect world, I’d like to have five (board members at hearings) just because of those stats that you showed there,” said Langan, referring to the fact that the full board paroles at a higher rate. “But it's not always possible.”

Cotton said when scheduling hearings, she and Layne Gissler, the board’s vice chair, strive to make sure five members are there. But the hearings are scheduled a year in advance, and sometimes circumstances arise that are out of their hands.

Rosalyn Cotton
Rosalyn Cotton, the head of the Nebraska Board of Parole

“Before the article and after the article — that's every day — I plan on going to every hearing I can …” said Gissler.

Gissler missed 14.3% of hearing days between 2018 and March 2022. He has missed 9.9% of days since the story was published.

Board member Habib Olomi, appointed in 2021, missed 18.2% of hearing days before March 2022. Since then, he has missed 14.3%.

Cotton has missed 22.7% of parole board hearing days since 2018, most on the board. She said some of these absences were due to her role as board chair, which requires her to do other tasks besides hearings.

She’s the only board member whose absence rate has gone up since March 2022, with most of the missed hearings tied to her medical leave and family emergencies, she said. Since she returned from her leave, she has missed fewer hearings again.

As drafted, McKinney’s bill would allow only three absences at hearings in a calendar year, and McKinney said he plans to make exceptions for family, health and other emergencies. But McKinney told the Flatwater Free Press that, after speaking with members of the Judiciary Committee, he will change the number of allowable absences before the bill gets voted out of committee.

“Possibly one full day of hearings a month or 10% of full (hearing days) a year,” he said in an email. He said he intends to mandate statements from parole board members on why they need to miss a hearing.

The bill, if passed into law, would also raise the parole board quorum to four. It would mandate more board training on cultural competency and implicit, or subconscious, bias. It also would require that one member of the parole board be a formerly incarcerated Nebraskan and another member have experience in “restorative justice and re-entry into society.”

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee held a hearing in March but took no vote on the bill. McKinney has since made it his priority bill.

Cotton said the board will take no formal position on the bill.

Board member Bob Twiss did testify against the bill, as its lone opponent at the March hearing.

Twiss’ attendance improved the most of any parole board member after March 2022. He missed 17.4% hearing days between May 2018 and March 2022, but only 5.5% since the story was published.

During the hearing, Twiss told the committee that McKinney’s bill goes “way too far.”

Sen. Carol Blood, a Democrat from Bellevue, pushed back.

“All I'm seeing is an accountability bill. Do you think we go too far when we're asking for better accountability?” she asked Twiss.

“It's going too far when it's only three absences. ... I am all for accountability,” Twiss replied.

Blood noted that parole board members are appointed by the governor to full-time positions. Board members made $86,407 last year. Cotton made $94,642 as chair.

“If you are being paid $84,000 a year to do a specific job that you've been appointed to do, do you understand why people might be concerned that you're not there 100% of the time?” Blood asked, noting state lawmakers are paid $12,000 a year.

“We are showing up,” Twiss said. “But I also do believe, strongly believe that we are entitled to some vacation along the way, and also the normal type of leave.”

Mario Paparozzi, a leading parole researcher and the former chair of the New Jersey State Parole Board, argued that board members need to attend all hearings. A parole board member’s primary job is to hear cases, assess risk and “figure out who can be successfully reintegrated back into the community,” he told the Flatwater Free Press last year.

Mario Paparozzi Mug.jpg
Mario Papaprozzi, parole expert

The persistent, continued gap in parole rates when all five Nebraska parole board members attend a hearing versus when three or four members attend is another reason that all members should be at all hearings, he argued.

“You have an absenteeism issue,” Paparozzi said in a recent interview. “But what we really also have is a credibility issue.”

McKinney is worried that parole board attendance may slip again in the future if the Legislature fails to pass his bill.

“What about in six months… Are they going to go back to what they were doing prior when they feel like the heat is off of them?” he wondered. “So we definitely need to … make sure that they're not just picking and choosing when they want to show up.”

During an interview, Cotton was asked about the future of parole board attendance. Can the public expect to see the board’s higher 2023 attendance rates continue?

She replied with three words: “It’s our job.”

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

Download our apps today for all of our latest coverage.

Get the latest news and weather delivered straight to your inbox.