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Last year, the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole (BOP) made nearly 18,000 decisions determining everything from release dates for prison inmates to setting conditions of release to responding when those conditions are violated.
A new performance audit released Monday suggests a number of changes to improve the way the parole board operates, including moving to a paperless filing system, making the process more transparent to the public and using more evidence-based practices in deciding how long a prisoner should be behind bars.
A legislative subcommittee went over the 100-page report with parole board officials, who said they agreed with everything that the audit found and are open to making necessary changes.
"We're looking forward to some of those changes," said Greg Johnson, administrative coordinator for the parole board. "We're looking forward to ... being more efficient."
The audit, prepared by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General, noted that Utah's parole board members "wield significant influence on public safety and the use of public resources" because of the amount of discretion they have in making final decisions affecting prisoners.
"Utah's Legislature appears to grant its parole board more discretion than any other state does," auditors wrote. "Board decisions are final and cannot be appealed. Consequently, board decisions carry significant weight. Unfortunately, assurances that board decisions are both consistent and fair are difficult to validate because the BOP lacks the ability to track down key data and performance measure."
In Utah, judges hand down indeterminate sentences to defendants zero to five years for a third-degree felony conviction, one to 15 years for a second-degree felony and five years to life for a typical first-degree felony and the parole board then decides when an inmate should be released within those broad spans of time.
The Utah Sentencing Commission issues guidelines, the audit noted, but the parole board is not obligated to follow them.
The average time a prisoner spends incarcerated has increased steadily over the past decade, the audit said.
In 2005, inmates spent an average of 23 months in prison. By 2014, that average had risen to 30 months but auditors wrote that the parole board has no way to track whether those lengthier sentences are "achieving better criminal-justice outcomes."
"The board is not fully aware if an increased length of stay has positively affected public safety, reduced recidivism or simply cost taxpayers more money," auditors wrote.
They suggested that the parole board start collecting more data to guide its decisions, and adopt a structured decision-making model so its release decisions are consistent, and not based mainly on "individual professional judgment and experience."
Auditors also suggested improving so-called rationale sheets given to prisoners explaining the parole board's decisions, which currently consist of a one-page form in which board members check the various aggravating or mitigating circumstances that influenced their decision.
The parole board also should do away with its paper record-keeping system, the auditors found, which prevents it from collecting data in a meaningful way and limits transparency because paper files are difficult to analyze and share. The auditors suggested that the parole board fund a paperless program itself or ask for a federal grant before asking for state funds to facilitate the change.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, questioned how the board could still be using a paper system and wondered whether board members had asked for legislative funding in the past for a computer system and been denied.
Board Chairwoman Angela Micklos said members have never asked for funding, because they have been more focused on making decisions on the large number of cases coming their way and less concerned about changing their processes.
She told the subcommittee that when she started working there six years ago, she was surprised to find that employees still pushed carts full of paper files through the office hallways. Back then, they didn't even have copiers that converted to PDF files.
"I share your concerns, that this is an archaic system," she said. "… It's baby steps for us. But we absolutely want to become more efficient."
Johnson said he hopes a paperless system will free up more time for staff to focus on important tasks such as collecting more data and having the time to better explain the board's decisions to inmates and their families.
Auditors also suggested that after other changes are made, the parole board should make more of its documents public.
"Increasing the transparency of BOP operations is especially important because the BOP is lacking many of the normal oversight mechanisms present in other state agencies," the report reads, noting that the board has no internal auditors to scrutinize its operations, has not had a financial audit by the state in at least a decade and has not, until now, been the subject of a legislative audit.
Micklos said in a letter to the auditors that her office has already started implementing their recommendations, including hiring a research consultant six months ago.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah called the audit "troubling," saying it confirmed the complaints it has heard from many inmates and their families, who say that the board has no consistent practices for determining the length of stay for inmates, uses questionable decision-making processes and does not keep adequate records or effectively communicate with the public.
"We have been receiving complaints for several years now about the parole board's lack of transparency, accountability and consistency," said Leah Farrell, ACLU of Utah staff attorney. "This audit makes quite clear the many reasons that the board's processes and practices are confusing and frustrating for victims, inmates, families and even defense attorneys."
At Monday's hearing, subcommittee members voted to forward the audit report to interim committee for further review.