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Is Mississippi’s parole system broken?

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Is Mississippi’s parole system broken?

Jun 03, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Mina Corpuz
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Former chairman of the Mississippi Parole Board Steve Pickett in this file photo speaking to lawmakers during a joint hearing of the House Corrections and Judiciary B Committees about the current Mississippi Department of Corrections issues Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America
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Former chairman of the Mississippi Parole Board Steve Pickett in this file photo speaking to lawmakers during a joint hearing of the House Corrections and Judiciary B Committees about the current Mississippi Department of Corrections issues Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

This is the first of a year-long look at Mississippi’s parole system.

At 17, James Williams III shot and killed his father and stepmother in south Jackson, stuffed their bodies into plastic containers and dumped them in the woods in a different county. 

In 2023 after he’d served nearly 20 years of a life sentence, Mississippi’s Parole Board freed him, two years after the previous board denied his request. He was 38 years old.

The decision came as a shock to family members of his victims, lawmakers and members of law enforcement who called on the Parole Board without success to reverse its decision. 

Williams’ parole also caught the attention of advocates helping those who have served longer behind bars and been denied parole multiple times, despite similarly participating in rehabilitative, educational and spiritual programs to show that they’ve changed. 

“You can have all the facts there and hear two or three different versions and accounts of the situations and when you see that someone has actually taken advantage of stuff, [and] is not the same person they were,” Parole Board Chair Jeffery Belk said in an interview to explain how the board makes decisions. 

Despite making all the same efforts as Williams, thousands of people have remained in prison instead of receiving parole. The parole grant rate that averaged 62% between 2013 and 2021 fell to 35% in 2022 when Belk and new members joined the Parole Board, according to data from the Mississippi Department of Corrections. 

At the same time, the board has held fewer hearings since 2022 and is using more and longer setoffs, the period between parole hearings. 

Is Mississippi’s parole system broken?
Photo courtesy of Mississippi Today

Among those denied parole is 65-year-old Anita Krecic, in prison since 1989 for her role in the murder of Highway Patrol Trooper David Bruce Ladner in Harrison County, for which she has maintained she was present but did not participate. The trooper’s shooter, Krecic’s boyfriend Tracy Alan Hansen, was executed over 20 years ago

Krecic stopped using drugs in prison, enrolled in college-level classes and took vocational courses like computer repair.

The Parole Board denied her release in 2022 – the 10th time since she became parole eligible. Her next hearing is some time in 2030, according to court records. She will then be nearly 70 years old.

“I have a cabinet full of (records of) people who are honestly trying and are trying to do better and do better,” said Mitzi Magleby, an advocate working with Krecic and other incarcerated people to navigate the parole process. 

Magleby is among advocates, family members and incarcerated people who see these disparate decisions as a sign that Mississippi’s parole system is broken. 

Inconsistencies with whom is paroled, the use of long setoffs and infrequent use of other forms of medical or compassionate release keep people inside, contributing to the growth of Mississippi’s prison population. Logistical issues create a bottleneck of those who could be released but can’t partly due to a lack of caseworkers and plans they generate, which are a required part of parole. 

Even after release, they encounter a supervision system with a high number of vacancies and the many challenges of reentry, including a lack of transitional housing. 

A 2023 Prison Policy Initiative report that looked at parole outcomes across 27 states found that the COVID-19 pandemic led to a change in parole grant rates. But, while the average change in rates from 2019 to 2022 was a 14% decrease, Mississippi’s was 45%. 

Additionally, the review found that the number of parole hearings and overall releases decreased in most states in the past five years. 

Mississippi halted new prison admissions and saw its prison population fall early in the pandemic, but the population has returned to pre-pandemic levels as the Parole Board has scaled back releases. 

Researchers at the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota studying parole release and revocation across the country also found that parole grant rates plummeted in 2022. 

“COVID caused a massive change to the makeup of the prison population,” said Robina research director Julia Laskorunsky. “To me, it makes sense most states would have a higher denial rate following COVID and it would rebound back to the norm.”

But in Mississippi, it hasn’t.

Parole is the main way people are released from the Mississippi prison system, accounting for over 60% of all releases since at least 2017, according to a 2021 report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review. 

Between 2013 and 2023, the board granted parole to over 52,000 people, averaging about 4,700 people each year, according to a review of MDOC parole data. 

Nearly 6,000 people were paroled in 2016, a high during the 10-year period. 

“Looking at the success (of people’s rehabilitation) is the primary job,” said Steve Pickett, who served as Parole Board chair from 2013-2021. 

A parole grant is the first step. Typically, the wait time between parole and release is two weeks. 

More than 95% of the over 56,000 people granted parole within the past decade had a nonviolent charge as their primary offense, such as drug possession, burglary and felony DUI, according to MDOC data. 

Those with a primary nonviolent offense also made up the bulk of parole denials because there are more people incarcerated for nonviolent and drug crimes compared to violent and sex crimes. There are also less crimes defined as violent compared to nonviolent crimes.

However, homicide remains the most common primary charge among the 31,000 denied parole – nearly 12% of all denial outcomes, according to MDOC data. 

Is Mississippi’s parole system broken?
Former chairman of the Mississippi Parole Board Steve Pickett in this file photo speaking to lawmakers during a joint hearing of the House Corrections and Judiciary B Committees about the current Mississippi Department of Corrections issues Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

As an integral part of the criminal justice system, Pickett said the board can serve as a release valve when the prison population is overwhelmed and it acts as a group of social workers and judges to determine whether a person can be freed. 

When he retired, the prison population had fallen below 17,000, mostly in response to MDOC freezing the transfer of people from county jails during the early days of the pandemic. By the end of 2022, the population returned to pre-pandemic levels above 19,000. 

The decade’s low of about 2,150 people granted parole came in 2022, when the board’s chairman and membership changed, the data shows. 

“We’re not a numbers-driven board,” Belk said, noting that he stepped into the role without an agenda. “I’ve made that very clear in the past several years.”

He became chairman on the heels of a wave of parole grants and criminal justice reforms designed to increase parole eligibility for an estimated 5,700 additional inmates.

People wondered why the new iteration of the board wasn’t paroling as many people compared to previous years. Belk said the board is trying to exercise better due diligence to grant parole, which he said includes having all available information about a person and their case and completed and substantive case plans from MDOC. 

“No, we actually took the time to review and try to get these systems and processes in place to where people can be set up for success,” he said. 

When denying parole, the board typically uses setoff periods, the length of time between hearings.  

In 2022, 1,404 people were set off to the end of their sentence – the highest in the 10-year period. Belk said most of the people the board has set off to duration are those with short sentences who were expected to be released within weeks, months or years, as opposed to decades. 

The board also decides whether to revoke parole for those found to violate the terms of their release, especially after arrest or conviction of a new crime. 

The year Belk became chairman, the board revoked parole for over 2,100 people, a 90% increase from 2021, when the board revoked parole for closer to 1,100 people, according to MDOC data. 

The board continued parole for more than 1,000 people for back-to-back years in 2020 and 2021. The new board continued parole for fewer than 100 people in 2022 and in 2023, according to MDOC data. 

About two-thirds of Missisisppi’s prison population is now eligible for parole, partly because of legislation passed in the last two decades. 

Those convicted of nonviolent offenses or drug offenses were already eligible after serving 25% or 10 years of their sentence. Reforms passed in 2021 expanded parole eligibility to those convicted of violent offenses, with most needing to serve at least half or 20 years of their sentence or 60% or 25 years for specific crimes such as carjacking. 

Criminal justice groups from both political parties that support the reforms say nearly all of the 2,150 people who became eligible for parole under Senate Bill 2795 did not return to prison on a new sentence within the first two years of their release, according to an analysis by FWD.us, a bipartisan criminal justice and immigration advocacy group. 

This year, the governor signed into law a bill that extends the parole eligibility reforms for two more years.

Despite the successes, advocates have said the law is not being fully used. FWD.us said the impact of expanding parole in 2021 was short-lived because it was not fully implemented, according to a report released ahead of the recent legislative session. 

“The Parole Board plays an essential role in ensuring the state’s parole law is fully implemented,” said Mississippi State Director Alesha Judkins in a statement.

Once parole eligible, a individual applies for consideration. Four months ahead of their eligibility date, the board gathers information to make a determination, such as the circumstances of their crime, previous criminal record, conduct during incarceration and participation in prison programming. 

The board also approves a person’s case plan and sees whether they will have family or community support or a job lined up after prison. 

“If someone has done what they are supposed to do and taken advantage of the different opportunities at MDOC, it’s kind of what have you done to make yourself parolable?” Belk said. 

“What have you done to set yourself up for success?” 

Is Mississippi’s parole system broken?
Parole Board Chairman Jeffrey Belk discusses the role of the board in an interview with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. Credit: Jerry Mitchell/MCIR

But success is subjective, in the eyes of the board. People have come to their parole hearings with multiple certificates of courses and programs they have completed, but Belk said the board didn’t always see them as meaningful. 

Although he couldn’t substantiate the allegation, he said some program instructors would sign all the certificates and hand them out at the beginning of a course instead of teaching, which showed that some of the programs lacked credibility. 

“Most of the time it was a participation trophy,” said Belk, who spoke anecdotally about what the board has been told by MDOC staff and inmnates during parole and revocation hearings. 

Under Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain, Belk said courses are now being taught and documented in a standardized way, giving the board a peace of mind that inmates are learning and growing by participating in them. 

Parole hearings are more often a file review completed in the board’s Jackson office. The person up for parole can attend the hearing via live video, for instance if they have legal representation and or a hearing is requested, but most inmates do not attend.  

In 2021, PEER released a report that painted what Belk saw as a “picture of an agency in disarray.” The report found the board held untimely hearings and was not effectively using presumptive parole for nonviolent offenders who have met certain requirements and doesn’t require a hearing. 

A followup PEER report in June 2023 found the board was holding timely hearings but still wsn’t effectively using presumptive parole or keeping meeting minutes. Belk said the board is working with MDOC to get systems, policies and procedures in place for presumptive parole to operate, which it hasn’t since it was made law in 2014. 

“The (MDOC) commissioner uses the phrase ‘It’s like a caterpillar crawl out.’ I use the phrase ‘It’s like trying to push a string,’” he said about getting things in order. 

Once presumptive parole is running, Belk said the board will have more time to focus on considering parole for violent offenders, including those sentenced to life with the possibility of parole before 1995. 

Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, said research shows that people convicted of life sentences, even serious violent offenses and sexual offenses, have the lowest recidivism rates and, along with the elderly, are least likely to return to prison. 

“As counterintuitive as it seems, that is good policy to focus on lifers,” she said. 

Belk said the board tries to see the nuances in each individual case or each time a person comes up for parole, which can be multiple times before release. 

Sometimes, people are good talkers and charmers with a prepared speech about how much they have changed during incarceration, so Belk said the board has to distinguish between fact and fiction, action and words. 

There are people who decided they no longer wanted to be the version of themselves who were convicted and sentenced. They have completed high school equivalent and college degrees, found religion, learned a trade – sometimes all three. 

When they talk about what they’ve done, Belk said you can tell they’ve changed, or they say they are at peace and content with whatever decision the board makes about their parole.

That brings back the discussion of James Williams III, and before him, Frederick Bell.

In 2022, the board voted to parole Frederick Bell, who was convicted of shooting 21-year-old Robert “Bert” Bell (no relation) during a 1991 store robbery in Grenada County. He had originally been sentenced to death, but was resentenced to life with parole eligibility. 

In prison, Bell served as a mentor, teacher and pastor

The decision shocked Bert Bell’s family, who said they had been attending Parole Board hearings since 2015 to oppose his release. Gene Bell, Bert’s younger brother, said the board previously said it wouldn’t parole Frederick Bell and would give him a longer setoff period until his next hearing. 

Under state law, the board can’t deny someone parole based solely on victim opposition. 

But the board delayed Bell’s September 2022 release, and the next month it rescinded his parole and gave him a two-year setoff. He remains at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. 

In a 2023 report, the Prison Policy Initiative cited Bell’s approved and rescinded release as an example of how political dynamics can influence how parole is used and applied. 

Is Mississippi’s parole system broken?
James Williams III, convicted of killing his father and stepmother, is seen in this photo from his graduation from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with a Bachelor’s degree in Christian Ministry. Credit: Courtesy of MDOC

Last year, the board approved parole for Williams, convicted of murdering his father, James Jr., and stepmother, Cindy Lassiter Mangum, in 2002.

Williams was originally not eligible for release but was resentenced due to U.S. Supreme Court decisions limiting life without parole for those who committed crimes when they were under the age of 18. The first time he came up for parole in 2021, he was denied, Pickett said. 

The next year when he was up for parole again, Jake Howard, his attorney, told Mississippi Today’s Jerry Mitchell, that Williams was “an exceptional candidate for parole” who had been part of MDOC’s faith-based programs since 2008, tutored other students, became a field minister and served as a minister of music at a Parchman church. 

The victims’ family and lawmakers opposed Williams’ release, raising concerns about public safety. This time, the opposition held no sway. Williams was released in May 2023. 

Several months after his release, Williams was arrested in Rankin County for driving under the influence. He went before the board again, and had his parole revoked. To date, he is incarcerated at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl. 

Looking back, Belk said the Bell and Williams cases were high profile and there was debate over what the facts of the each case were, which he saw play out on social media and through interviews family members and lawmakers gave. 

“I was not going to go on the [Paul] Gallo show to comment to the media and make a bad situation worse,” he said.

Belk declined to comment further about the men’s cases, including why the board decided to keep Bell in prison but not Williams. 

Generally, if someone is parole eligible, the law directs the board to consider them, regardless of their convicted offenses. That means the board can’t lump all the violent offenders together and refuse to grant them parole, Belk said. 

But that doesn’t mean the board has to release everyone, he said. Commonalities in convictions and completion of programming doesn’t always justify parole, Belk said. Neither does someone’s age or how long they have been in prison.

“Just because someone has made a life change, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be back on the streets either,” Belk said. 

Both Belk and Pickett said there are situations where the board agrees someone would never be ready for parole, typically when the indivdual committed an egregious crime, like Luke Woodham, who was convicted for killing his mother and two classmates in the 1997 Pearl High School shooting and became parole eligible while Pickett served on the board. 

Some of those people who are now seeking parole may have a clear behavioral record and built good relationships with prison staff, but Belk said then you look into their cases. 

“The horrific details of what they’ve done, borderline sadistic,” he said.

It can be heartbreaking to see a victim or family emotionally scarred years or decades after losing someone, and they’re asking the board not to grant parole. Belk said he has had to explain that the individuals have met parole requirements, earned good time or completed their sentence. 

Pickett said even though people may be asking for different outcomes, he can see a family or parent’s love for their child, whether that person was a crime victim or the incarcerated person. 

“An open door is the best policy so that nobody thinks an injustice is being done, and it leads to trust in the system because if you’re at last able to get a fair hearing, even if you don’t like the outcome,” he said. 

Magleby, the parole advocate, also sees how people grow and change, but doesn’t understand how people who appear to be good candidates for release – a clear institutional record, jobs and housing lined up – have been denied parole. 

Julia Norman, the newest member of the parole board, said during her February 2023 confirmation hearing that the board can vote to deny parole if they feel that the person received a sentence that was too short. 

Pickett, the former chairman, said the board’s job is not to resentence or determine if someone wasn’t sentenced long enough. Belk said declining to parole someone and using setoffs is not a form of resentencing. 

Magleby said the Parole Board has always been tough, but the former board seemed more fair and open to rehabilitation. 

She has no ill will towards Williams and the fact he was paroled, but she can’t help but think he got that opportunity over others who have been incarcerated for longer and have also made use of opportunities in prison to make themselves parolable. 

“And why not them?” Magleby asked.