AJC investigative reporter Alan Judd talks about his upcoming story. (Video edited by Elissa Benzie)

Criticized for secrecy, parole board to give crime victims a say

Georgia’s parole board, criticized for secretly pardoning violent criminals and sex offenders, adopted major policy changes Tuesday, inviting unprecedented scrutiny of at least some of its operations.

Beginning next month, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles will notify crime victims and prosecutors when a sex offender or other violent felon applies for a pardon, including those restoring the right to possess firearms. For decades, the agency has kept the existence of such applications confidential, and prosecutors and victims could not learn about pardons until after the fact. From now on, they’ll be offered a chance to weigh in before the board acts.

The parole board also decided Tuesday to impose new restrictions on pardon applications from registered sex offenders. The board historically has considered pardon requests only if sex offenders have been out of prison or off probation for at least five years. Tuesday’s vote extended the waiting period to 10 years.

These changes take effect in 30 days, barring a legal challenge. The General Assembly is likely to consider more changes when it convenes next month.

The board acted after months of critical examinations, including a series of investigative articles in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Journal-Constitution reported that the board restored firearms rights for more than 1,400 felons between 2008 and 2013. In 2013 alone, the board granted 666 pardons that restored gun rights, a tenfold increase from six years earlier. At the same time, the proportion of violent criminals, including sex offenders, regaining gun rights increased from 6 percent in 2008 to 31 percent in 2013.

The newspaper also examined the secrecy that shrouds most of the board’s deliberations; the board routinely refuses to release documents explaining its decisions, even to law enforcement authorities. Documents submitted to the board are deemed “state secrets.”

Further, the Journal-Constitution found that the board’s pardons of sex offenders could have unintended consequences; a state appeals court is considering whether a pardon automatically removes felons from the state’s sex offender registry. The case arose after the board issued a pardon — a statement of official forgiveness — last year to a Savannah man convicted of aggravated sodomy of a 6-year-old girl.

“That was a game changer,” Michael Nail, the parole board’s executive director, said in an interview. With the Court of Appeals case pending, Nail said, the board’s staff sought ideas from victims’ advocates, judges, prosecutors and others about handling pardons for sex offenders.

“It wasn’t done in a vacuum,” Nail said. “It was a deliberative process.”

When victims and prosecutors receive notice of pardon applications, they will have 10 days to respond. That’s a tight deadline, officials acknowledge.

“There’s nothing that says we can’t go back and add to it,” Nail said. But “we’ve got to keep the process flowing.”

The agency has also added several new requirements for felons applying for the restoration of gun rights. They will have to write a statement explaining why they want to regain firearms rights, and parole officers will interview them in person. Sex offenders seeking their gun rights will have to undergo a psychological evaluation and pass a lie detector test.

The changes approved Tuesday apparently will not satisfy the agency’s critics.

“I do think that’s a step in the right direction, but it’s important that the General Assembly look at codifying some changes in the law,” said state Rep. Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville). He said he still plans to introduce a bill that would repeal many provisions in state law that enable the board to act mostly in secret.

Just as victims and prosecutors should be told of pardon applications, Tanner said, the public should be able to review the factors behind the board’s decisions.

“There needs to be some kind of written decision issued for public scrutiny,” he said. “There has to be a degree of transparency in any government function.”

Tanner took an interest in the board after it refused to explain its decision last summer to cancel the execution of Death Row inmate Tommy Lee Waldrip, convicted of a 1991 murder in Dawson County. Judges, he said, issue written rulings in criminal cases, while the parole board releases no documents explaining its decisions.

During their meeting Tuesday, board members said almost nothing about the relative merits of transparency or confidentiality in their proceedings. James Mills, the vice chairman, came the closest to addressing the issue when he noted that by requiring notification to prosecutors and victims, the board was “making this process even better.”

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