Veteran journalist Carl Hoffman believes he’s solved one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. In 1961 at the age of 23, Michael Rockefeller – son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and a member of one of the richest and most powerful families in America ¬– travelled to remote New Guinea in search of primitive art for his father’s new museum.
Advocates Call For Parole Of “Old Law” Prisoners
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It’s been 16 years since Ohio adopted a “truth in sentencing” law. It established mandatory sentences and essentially eliminated the possibility of parole for anyone sentenced after 1996.
But the state still has thousands of prisoners sentenced under the old law who advocates say should be jet out.
Trying To Spread The Word
A couple dozen activists recently gathered in downtown Columbus to protest the continued incarceration of those so-called old law prisoners: inmates sentenced before mandatory minimums were made law. Imam Allizar with the group Central Ohio Prisoner Advocates says prisoners sentenced before 1996 should be eligible for parole, but few are getting the chance.
“So under this present system, you have a double jeopardy type system whereby those who were incarcerated prior to 1996 have to face what is known as the Parole Board,” Allizar says.
…which is paroling fewer and fewer inmates for all crimes.
Tekla Lewin is a former Syracuse University professor turned activist. She’s asking the state to release all 3,200 old law prisoners, regardless of their crime, unless they’ve gotten in trouble behind bars.
“Many of them have worked very, very hard to turn their lives around, have realized that they’ve made errors, and have tried to become good people and have good prison records. But the Parole Board doesn’t look at that . They just say ‘five more years,’ and when the five years are up they say ‘five more years.’”
Drop In Paroles
State figures do show sharp declines in both the number of old law prisoners going before the Parole Board and the percentage of inmates granted parole. In 1998, the Parole Board heard arguments on about 13,000 inmates and granted parole to about 18 percent. Last year, the Parole Board held fewer than a thousand hearings, and only five percent of inmates who went before the board were released.
Ohio State University criminologist Heather Schoenfeld says mandatory sentences lead to two main outcomes.
“When a judge sentences a defendant to a prison term, the public can be sure that that prisoner in Ohio is going to spend 100 percent of their sentence in prison. On the other hand, it has had the affect of increasing prison populations dramatically.”
Ohio’s prison population has increased by about 3,000 inmates since mandatory sentences took effect.
State prison administrators and members of the Parole Board declined requests for an interview, but a prisons spokeswoman wrote in an email that after 16 years of paroling old law prisoners, the majority of those remaining are convicted rapists and murderers, and any decisions about paroles have be weighed against concerns for public safety.
Balancing Parole With Victims’ Rights
“The early release of prisoners is a major failure of the American justice system,” says Howard Klerk, president of the Cincinnati-based organization Parents of Murdered Children.
Klerk says any old law prisoners still locked up need to STAY locked up, and the focus needs to stay on crime victims.
“Their victims were given a life sentence with no possibility of parole. In the case of a murder, their victims were sentenced to eternity with no possibility of parole. What makes anybody think these sociopaths are going to be rehabilitated?”
Criminologist Heather Schoenfeld says that’s a natural response..which results in an issue that is more about emotion and less about objective policy making.
“So you’re talking about a relatively small number of prisoners in an Ohio system that has something like 50,000 prisoners. It’s a question of whether there’s a political will to deal with this class of prisoners.”
Schoenfeld says there’s not a consensus among researchers about whether old law prisoners should get parole or stay in prison. But she says mandatory minimum prison sentences are part of a nationwide trend that’s likely to continue.