Does public opinion affect parole decisions?

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Whether or not they are secretly or subconsciously influenced by public opinion, parole boards in some places aren’t allowed to consider it. In others, they can consider it, but don’t have to. And in others still, they must.

In one case, for example, the then mayor of New York authored a letter discouraging the state parole board from granting parole to a prisoner because of the “heinousness” of the prisoner’s crimes. A federal judge explained that the relevant statute and regulations didn’t say that the board could consider public opinion in its decisions. So, the judge opined that the board could not legally take into account the opinion of the now former mayor.

In another case—this one arising out of Michigan—a state appeals court found that the parole board wasn’t required to consider a petition opposing parole for a particular prisoner. Almost 300 community members had signed the petition, but the appeals court explained that the parole guidelines didn’t include public opinion as a required consideration.

In California, however, the Board of Parole Hearings must “review all information received from the public to insure that the gravity and timing of all current or past convicted offenses have been given adequate consideration and to insure that the safety of the public has been adequately considered.” (Cal. Penal Code § 3043.5; see Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 2028.)

So, whether a parole board can or must consider public opinion about the prisoner before it depends on the state.

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