Pat McDonald and Ben Kinsley, co-hosts of “Vote for Vermont”, were joined by Dean George, Chair of the Vermont Parole Board on a recent show. If you are like Ben and Pat, you know very little about the Vt. Parole Board. First its Chair - Dean George is a retired Captain from the Vermont State Police, former State Representative from Middlebury, and former member of the Middlebury Select board. Dean was appointed by Governor Jim Douglas as a member of the Board and named chair the following year.
The Parole Board is an independent entity that considers eligible offenders for parole, rendering just decisions by balancing victim needs, the risk to the public safety, while promoting offender accountability and success. While independent, the Parole Board is located within the Agency of Human Services but only for funding and administrative purposes.
When Dean joined the Board, there were issues surrounding training and qualifications and the Board was lacking a detailed policies and procedures manual. Dean set about correcting these deficiencies. New members are sent to training compliments of the Federal Government and Dean worked with a group to write a very comprehensive Manual which has been finalized and made available on line.
The Board handles 1,000 to 1,200 hearings a year held at 16 sites throughout Vermont. When an inmate is provided a minimum and maximum sentence, everyone is eligible for parole once they have reached their minimum date. The Board encourages all inmates to meet with them even if they are not ready for Parole just to know what they should be doing to prepare for parole.
As members of the Board prepare for their parole hearings, they read the inmates file and prepare and use a risk evaluation tool to assess high/low/medium risk. This and the interview process helps them to establish any individual restrictions which are put in place to ensure a successful integration into the community for the parolee. They take into consideration such factors as age, whether they have a job, history and family support. Dean said that the Board encourages victims to participate in the parole hearing process. Hearings are open to the public. They go into a closed session when they are ready to deliberate on whether to grant a parole or not. Once the decision is made they announce and explain the decision in public. If parole is denied, the inmate through his/her case worker may apply to appear before the Board again. There is no time limit. When a parolee has violated the terms of his/her parole, he/she has to appear before the parole represented by an attorney. Witnesses are sworn in and everything is “on the record”. Dean advised that 78 -80% of parolees have substance abuse problems.
We asked Dean about recidivism and he noted that most first-time offenders are between the ages of 16 and 24 years old and the recidivism rate is sadly high. Although overall Vermont’s recidivism rate is lower than most states. Vermont has many excellent programs available to parolees to help them with their transition. Dean spoke very highly of programs like CoSa (Circle of Support & Accountability).
Dean was asked if videoconferencing was used at all. He said that it’s used for out-of-state parole hearings. The technology could be used even more if they could have the right equipment available at the various sites around the state. Another issue which is of great concern is the lack of approved housing. Many parolees are kept beyond their minimum date because they cannot secure appropriate housing. It’s a very complicated problem and fortunately there are several transitional housing programs around the state but they all have waiting lists.
There are some variations on the parole theme. Dean explains there is a possibility of early release to reward them for a job well done. There is also something called a conditional re-entry (CR) into the community which is decided by the Department of Corrections to give an inmate a taste of what parole will be like before they go in front of the Parole Board. One other variation we talked about was parolees being placed on SCS (supervised community sentence). With this designation parolees have a little more flexibility in their restrictions.
Dean said the Board does everything in its power to make reentry successful for each inmate. Sometimes it gets complicated because there are waiting lists for drug programs and other services, but for everyone who is successful, it makes the Board focus even more on making the right decisions for each parolee.
Note: Dean George, Chair of the Vermont Parole Board, discussed lots of issues and topics, not all included in the above summary. If you would like to see the entire show, please go to vote802.com for this show and a complete listing of all Vote for Vermont shows or our YouTube channel.
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By Pat McDonald and Ben Kinsley