Parole board shuts down all hearings
October 20, 2006
Nevada’s parole board is shutting down, canceling all inmate hearings because of a Supreme Court ruling they must conduct those hearings under the open meeting law.
Board Chair Dorla Salling said they have asked the high court to stay its ruling while they seek a rehearing.
“Unless we get the stay, no one’s getting out of prison,” she said.
Asked what that would do to Nevada’s already overcrowded prison system, Deputy Director of Corrections Fritz Schlottman said, “You can just kind of compare it to a train wreck.”
He said the prison releases an average of 233 males and 33 females a month on parole. With fewer than 300 empty beds, he said that means they will be at maximum capacity in just over a month.
If the parole board shuts down, the only inmates freed would be those who actually complete their sentences.
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Salling and board Executive Secretary David Smith said conducting parole hearings under the open meeting law would be extremely difficult but that, if they don’t get the stay from the Supreme Court, they will have to begin trying to write procedures to do it.
Unfortunately, he said, they can’t hold open hearings without figuring out exactly what is required.
Keith Munro, chief of staff to Gov. Kenny Guinn, confirmed the decision to end hearings until the situation is resolved.
“We’re trying to sort out what this opinion means,” he said. “If it’s the worst of what we think it means, the advice from our attorneys was to shut down all hearings.”
Smith said under current rules, the inmate and victim get to testify and usually in public. Family and other testimony is taken in written form. Then, he said, the board deliberates in private to decide whether to release an inmate.
Under the open meeting rules, he said, anyone who shows up must be allowed to speak.
“If they bring 20 family members here, we have to hear from 20 family members,” he said. “You’d be there all day.”
He said that would put an impossible strain on the parole board’s calendar since they must hear something in excess of 600 cases a month.
And, he said, a large amount of very personal information both about victims and inmates and their families is discussed in those hearings.
He said they need to know what parts can be kept confidential and how to do so.
Salling said currently, a third of those hearings are done without the inmate present. They would also have to have all inmates in attendance and may have to have legal counsel provided for them.
She and Smith said if they don’t comply with all the open meeting law rules, any action they take to release or deny an inmate would be legally void. And, without working out procedures to comply in advance, there’s no way they can take a chance on further hearings.
She said the ruling in a case filed by inmate John Witherow is especially hard to deal with since the parole board knew this case was coming and asked the 2005 Legislature to pass a bill that would clearly state parole hearings are outside the open meeting law. That legislation was approved by the Nevada Senate but died in the Assembly.
The petition for a stay of the Oct. 2 opinion’s effect and a rehearing on the issue of the open meeting law was filed Friday afternoon with the high court.
Without a stay, Schlottman said the prison could face lawsuits imposing daily fines for each inmate over the system’s capacity. He said a court ruling 20 years ago in a Michigan case fined that state $10,000 per day for each inmate over capacity. He said that ruling wasn’t lifted in Michigan until recently and cost as much as $1 billion in fines over the years.
“Hopefully we get a speedy ruling from the Supreme Court,” said Munro.
• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at email@example.com or 687-8750.