Parole board a law unto itself

The five members of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles operate with near-absolute autonomy. They do not answer to legislators, judges, or even the governor who appointed them to their jobs, which carry a base salary of $135,000 a year.

The board does not meet in public to consider cases. It announces no justification for its decisions.

In weighing the pleas of death row inmates to have their sentences commuted to life in prison, board members essentially are free to base their votes on any grounds they choose. They hear arguments from supporters and opponents of each clemency request in private, and neither side hears the other’s presentation.

Almost all the board’s files are classified as “confidential state secrets.”

The breadth of discretion the board enjoys and the secrecy surrounding its decisions can frustrate opponents of clemency as well as advocates for it. State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, was outraged last year when the board commuted the death sentence of murderer Tommy Waldrip.

In response, Tanner introduced a bill in the current legislative session that would require the board to follow strict standards in weighing clemency and to explain the basis for each decision afterward. The measure passed the House but is still awaiting Senate action with the end of the session just days away.

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This article is based in part on previous reporting by staff writer Alan Judd.