Legislation Removes Secrecy from Georgia Parole Board’s Proceedings, Decisions
by David M. Reutter
Unlike any other state agency, Georgia’s Board of Pardons and Paroles (GBPP) makes its major decisions behind closed doors, and virtually all the information contained in its files is considered a “confidential state secret.”
That secrecy was subjected to public scrutiny due to an increase in the number of decisions to restore firearm rights to offenders with convictions for murder, rape and child molestation. According to a report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the GBPP granted gun rights to 666 offenders in 2013 – a ten-fold increase from the number of such grants in 2008. Of those, gun rights restored to violent offenders jumped from 6% to 31%.
In making determinations on petitions for restoration of firearm rights, as well as parole and pardon decisions, the GBPP’s five members, appointed by the governor, do not even meet. According to one former member, a file prepared by a board staff person is passed among the members. As soon as a majority decides to vote one way the matter is decided, meaning two members might never see the file; in fact, the GBPP members may not even know how other members voted.
This lack of transparency extends to the GBPP’s parole and pardon decisions, such as when the board granted a pardon to Barry Davis, convicted of aggravated sodomy on a 4-year-old girl. The GBPP pardoned Davis in 2013 without notifying the prosecutor in the case or providing a reason for its decision. It later declined to release any records related to Davis’ pardon, citing state law.
District Attorney Meg Heap called the secrecy surrounding the GBPP’s records a “big black hole of no accountability, no transparency and no information.” She also said the GBPP’s policies conflicted with the state’s Victims’ Bill of Rights.
The GBPP bases the secrecy surrounding its decisions and files on a state law provision that says all documents in its possession are “confidential state secrets.” The law provides that divulging those secrets is a misdemeanor.
“There needs to be scrutiny,” said a former board member who requested anonymity. “There needs to be an opportunity to see if the information they’re relying on is accurate. What is the rationale for not releasing that information?”
Once a month the GBPP holds a public meeting. However, it cancelled nine of the 20 meetings scheduled between January 2013 and August 2014. At such meetings, members deal only with administrative matters such as technical rule changes; the public may comment at the close of business on the agenda, but must limit comments to the business the GBPP members have already decided.
“While there occasionally may be a legitimate reason for shielding limited information from the public, it is hard to believe that a state board with such a critical mission is so insulated from public oversight,” observed Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “The public is keenly interested in the criminal justice system ... with so little access to information about this state board, the public is unable to even evaluate if it is functioning properly.”
State lawmakers apparently agreed, and the House voted in March 2015 to approve a bill (HB 71) that requires GBPP members to publicly disclose their findings for pardons for serious crimes. Among other provisions, the legislation also requires the GBPP to notify prosecutors and victims or their families before making a final decision to grant parole or a pardon.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kevin Tanner, asked his fellow lawmakers to “Send a message that the days of operating behind closed doors and behind a veil of secrecy is over in Georgia,” adding, “This is the only area of our state government that operates in secrecy.”
The state Senate subsequently voted to pass the bill, which was signed into law on May 1, 2015. Both the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Prosecuting Attorneys Council had lobbied in support of the legislation.
Sources: www.myajc.com, www.wabe.org, http://savannahnow.com, http://online-athens.com
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