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Keith Hamilton marvels at how far he has come - that a "little black boy from North Carolina," as he often calls himself, is the new chairman of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole.
But Hamilton also believes God has guided him to his present position, where he leads a board determining the fate of Utah prisoners and serves as a member of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s Cabinet. He says it all started with his conversion to the LDS Church, which brought him to Utah 25 years ago.
"There's a purpose for me to be here," he says. "This is my time to do what I was set on Earth to do professionally."
Hamilton, a former trial attorney, says he wants to improve the parole board by making it more efficient, and more easily accessible to the public, inmates, and victims. Despite being one of the state's most powerful government entities, the board has labored largely in obscurity.
"I've been designated administrative leader of an organization many people don't understand," says Hamilton.
He draws inspiration for the task ahead from illustrations of Ammon and Captain Moroni, sword-wielding Mormon heroes that adorn his office walls. The pictures are accompanied by text from the Book of Mormon that speaks to Hamilton of honor, integrity and professionalism - values he wants the parole board to reflect.
"They remind me what one person can do," Hamilton said during a recent interview. "As one guy, I can make a difference."
Board past and future: Hamilton served as a part-time parole board member for 3 1/2 years. He was a full-time member from 1997 through 2003, when he quit to start a private practice as a criminal defense attorney. The governor reappointed Hamilton to the parole board last September, and named him chairman last week.
Hamilton says he's ready to build on the efforts of prior administrators Michael Sibbett, who retired last year after 15 years on the board, and Donald Blanchard, a 15-year veteran who will retire this year.
The animated, energetic 47-year-old can't stop talking about the possibilities. Favoring sports analogies, he used one to sum up his new job: "I'm in the NBA, playing on the All-Star team and going to the Olympics!"
At the top of Hamilton's list is educating Utahns about how the parole board works. He foresees improvements to the board's Web site and hopes to get more input from the citizenry - be they advocates for prisoners or for victims.
For inmates, he wants to publish a handbook to make sure they know what the board expects of them. Many don't realize getting tattoos in prison, for example, can hurt their chances for an earlier release.
Hamilton envisions more communication with victims, their families, and inmates about the process. He wants to provide better explanations of the board's rationale when considering parole dates.
They currently receive a form in which only general categories, such as "overall rehabilitative progress and promise," are marked. More detailed explanations could give inmates, their attorneys and others a better idea of what to expect in similar cases, Hamilton says.
In his role as chairman, Hamilton says he will be mindful of the underprivileged and those from lower economic strata, who sometimes need special help in dealing with bureaucracy. Also, he has asked his staff of 27 full-time employees to look for ways to improve in their jobs.
"I don't want to hear, 'We've been doing it that way for years,' " he says.
Hamilton plans to work more closely with the courts and Corrections officials to anticipate perennial problems such as prison bed-space shortages, which can put pressure on the board to make large numbers of early releases. But the board isn't obligated to release prisoners, the new board of pardons chairman said.
Casting votes: Despite his many administrative duties, Hamilton's primary responsibility is to participate in the voting process that decides the fate of prison inmates.
In that capacity, Hamilton's position as chairman carries no additional weight. He casts a single vote, and it takes a three-vote majority to decide a case. With his vote, he brings his own life experience.
Born in Virginia, he attended segregated schools during elementary and junior high school and lost both parents before he was 14. He was raised by aunts in a small tobacco town in North Carolina, where he attended high school, and won an engineering scholarship to North Carolina State University.
Hamilton, whose grandfather was a Southern Baptist minister, joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1980 while attending college. That, and an interest in social causes, led him to switch his undergraduate degree to criminal justice and to apply to Brigham Young University's law school.
The first black to graduate from the law school, he recalled the experience as lonely at times. It was a mere five years after blacks were allowed to hold the priesthood.
"I had to come to Salt Lake to get my hair cut, because no one in Provo knew how," he says. "I was dealing with culture shock, and culture shock within the church."
He now uses his own experience to encourage others.
"I tell students, 'If Keith Hamilton can get through law school, you can, too.' "
Hamilton says he tries to understand each case by taking "everyone's perspective" into consideration. A victim might view all criminals as "just mean, dangerous people," he says. But he must also acknowledge "when an inmate is remorseful and has done everything he can and is showing signs of reduced risk," he says.
Racial barriers: Hamilton enjoys acting and last year portrayed Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of rape in Harper Lee's novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," on the Hale Centre Theatre stage.
This year he hopes to finish a book he has been working on since 1988. Titled Eleventh Hour Laborer, Hamilton says the book is about "my thoughts and experiences as a black Latter-day Saint, and being an African-American in this predominantly white society."
"There are still [white] people who look at me differently as a black member," he says.
His antidote: "To try to break down the barriers by being an upstanding person and being honest in the way I treat people."
Yet Hamilton believes his roots and heritage are a large part of who he is.
"I'm still that little black boy from North Carolina," he says. "When the other [parole board employees] leave at five, I crank up the Michael Jackson while I look at files."
He hopes he is a role model for other blacks. And when his tenure is over, he hopes people will remember him for making things better,
"Not only for the agency," he says, "but for the system and for those who take advantage of our services."
* Age: 47
* Home state: North Carolina
* Education: North Carolina State University, '81
Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School, '86
* Career experience: U.S. Navy judge advocate general
* Family: Married, six children ages 1 through 20
* What does the parole board do?
In Utah, judges impose indeterminate prison terms, such as zero to five years, one to 15, or five years to life. A five-member parole board determines a prisoner's actual length of stay, making about 14,000 decisions each year. The board alone has the power to commute a death sentence.
* Who serves on the board?
Members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Utah Senate to serve five-year terms. Four of the five current members are attorneys.
* How does the board make decisions?
Inmates appear before a board member or a hearing officer, who will listen to them and ask questions. Victims or their surviving family members can also speak, and members of the public can write letters to the board. Board members review a report of the hearing, information about the crime, and progress reports from prison. A decision is made when at least three members agree.