ODRC Director discusses training and staff changes to improve the Ohio Parole Board

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New board members and a new thought process for the Ohio Parole Board which has been under criticism for what some call unfair practices. (WSYX/WTTE)

New board members and a new thought process for the Ohio Parole Board which has been under criticism for what some call unfair practices.

The woman heading up the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction spoke with ABC6 about parole reform.

“It’s time to expose the parole board, all of them must go,” was the chant protesters with Fair Treatment Reform and Reentry last month.

The inmate advocacy group is fighting to fix what they say is a non-transparent and unfair system.

“I think it needs modernized,” said Annette Chambers-Smith, Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Chambers-Smith says changes within her power are happening with the parole board.

“I think it is time for change and I think there are things that can be improved,” said Chambers-Smith.

Chambers-Smith says she came to the realization a need for improvements before she took the helm.

She says part of it followed a conversation with former parole board member Shirley Smith who shared with ABC6 Investigates what she described as a sickening experience with parole hearings.

“An offender would sit there while the parole board members were eating lunch or on the phone or doing their next day’s case and I’m thinking if this was a job interview what would you think your chances would be,” said Shirley Smith.

“I definitely think wow I wouldn’t want someone eating during my parole hearing these are things that I think need addressed and I wondered why they were doing that,” said Chambers-Smith.

Chambers-Smith says she also spoke with prisoner right advocacy groups, parolees, inmates, victims and the board itself.

“I realized that they were not even using current terminology about mental health and substance use disorder so right then I started saying to myself we need to inject some information here and some new blood to make sure we’re on the cutting edge of science when it comes to a lot of things,” said Chambers-Smith.

When Chambers-Smith took over as director, the parole board only had one member with no connection to ODRC.

There are now four and Chambers-Smith says she’ll take it to five members who’ve never worked for the department.

“That will allow us to have a more diverse background and thoughts coming in to what’s going on I think that’s reasonable,” said Chambers-Smith.

Still, inmates who spoke with ABC6 say it is pointless to go before the board when they’ve been given more time for nature of the crime despite meeting their minimum sentences and completing rehabilitation programs.

“I would say people who are out on parole would think differently,” said Chambers-Smith.

Decisions to release are based on 18 factors ranging from what the prosecutor and victims say to institutional adjustments.

“Yeah, we do have 10% parole rate at least. While I don’t want to bet on that in Vegas it is a significant number of people getting paroled and let’s keep in mind that the types of crimes, we’re talking about here are rape, murder, kidnapping. They’re crimes where a person is a victim,” said Chambers-Smith.

Chambers-Smith says she thinks they can do a better job communicating the reason for a decision.

“It’s not just nature of the crime, it’s likelihood to reoffend and a lot of other things but that’s all everyone sees it’s on,” said Chambers-Smith.

As part of the reform initiative, board members will be trained in motivational interviewing and structured decision-making.

“I think the board should not be expected to do just everything off a piece of paper and documents. I think talking to a human being who really knows that person is going to make a difference for some people,” said Chambers-Smith.

Fair Treatment Reform and Reentry wants an inmates institutional hearing recorded with transcripts made public which is something that would require legislative action.

“I’m not opposed to that if that’s what the general assembly decides we will implement that obviously we’re the ones that thought of live streaming the full board hearings so that’s not something, it’s not a secret,” said Chambers-Smith.

Chambers-Smith says some of the training for board members should be completed by the end of the summer or early fall.

Fair Treatment Reform Reentry is still working with legislators on drafting its bill.