New tool helps ID safe parolees
November 22, 2004
The Nevada Parole Board voted Monday to begin using a new tool designed to assess the risk each released inmate poses.
The board has long used a score sheet designed to grade an inmate according to how violent was his or her crime, how many prior convictions he or she has and other prison standards.
The new sheet was developed by James Austin, Ph.D., to provide guidelines for risk using other criteria. Austin’s system, developed for the Nevada Parole Board using a federal grant, uses such things as age and gender (males being more likely to commit another violent crime) and the person’s pre-prison job history.
He said he hopes it can help the parole board identify more inmates who are good candidates for parole. But he added that it might also identify an inmate who looks good on paper but isn’t such a good risk.
Part of Nevada’s problem, he said, is that there is very little difference in the percentage of inmates paroled who are rated medium and low risk.
“Ideally, we’d like to see a high grant rate for the low-risk cases,” he said.
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State officials are interested in improving methods of assessing candidates for parole because of the high cost of keeping someone in prison.
Austin and Parole Board management analyst David Smith said the guidelines aren’t intended to replace the existing standards, but to augment them.
“Risk assessment is going to provide a statistical assessment whether the person is going to go out and commit another crime,” said Smith.
Austin, a consultant who has studied the subject nationwide, said statistical data shows inmates are less likely to commit another offense if their first crime occurred when they were age 25 or older, and less likely if they had been successful in keeping a full-time job for more than two years.
It also gives points to inmates with no drug or alcohol abuse problems and no history of gang membership. And it says the older a parolee is, the less likely he or she is to commit another offense.
He said those risk factors are not an indicator of any bias, but based on national and historic data. An example, he said, is the gender of the inmate.
“A woman does have a much lower chance of recidivism and a much lower chance of violence if released,” he said.
Board member Tami Bass of Las Vegas said using both the existing parole standards and the new guidelines should give the board the “best of both worlds.”
“If we’re on the fence with someone, but he’s low on the risk assessment, then maybe that person will get off the fence,” she said.
The board also voted to continue its experiment in holding some parole hearings without the inmate present. The primary purpose was to enable the board to hear more cases.
But three of the members – Bass, John Morrow and Yolanda Morales – said they believe it is inequitable that some inmates get the chance to appear and convince the board they are good candidates for release while others do not.
“While I understand the fiscal problems, the better practice is to do face-to-face hearings,” said Morrow.
“I think we’re sacrificing quality for efficiency,” said Morales. “It’s inequitable because we do not see all of them.”
Members Connie Bisbee, Terry Hanebeck and Tom Goodson supported continuing the option of hearings without inmates present for another two years — in part because of the cost savings and because it allows the board to hold many more hearings for inmates in a timely fashion.
That left it to Chairwoman Dorla Salling, who voted to continue the experiment through this next budget cycle. However, she said, if problems arise, they can take the issue up again at any time.
Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at email@example.com or 687-8750.