A few days ago, I met with two perspective families of potential parole clients. They had different kinds of problems. I had seen both problems before. The first had a loved one who was ten years into a twenty-year sentence for armed robbery. The second had a loved one who was puzzled that he had been in prison for more than four years already for a ten-year prison sentence for possession with intent. In the first case, a competing attorney I had never heard of had offered an outstanding deal to represent them for parole on the armed robbery conviction. In the second instance, the legal advice came pre-plea. The law had negotiated a trafficking charge into a lesser offense for possession with intent to distribute. The lawyer advised the client to take it because he would be out after serving a third of his prison time. The family wanted a lawyer to work on parole but also to figure out what the hold-up was. In these two clients, I encountered the three things people don’t know about parole in Georgia.
The first was an easy case – in the sense that neither I nor anyone else could be of assistance. You can never be paroled for armed robbery in Georgia. The competing lawyer could never deliver on what he was offering the family. There are two equally-disturbing possibilities behind the lawyer’s advice. Either the lawyer doesn’t know the law (in which case, he should refrain from parole work until he knows a little more) or he is trying to get some money knowing that he can never deliver.
Before employing an attorney for parole, it is good for prospective clients to know whether parole is even a possibility for the conviction offense. A recent murder conviction carries no possibility of parole for thirty years. Some offenses require an inmate to serve 65% of the sentence. It is best to know the answer to the eligibility question before going any further. But assuming that the prospective parole client is eligible, it is important to know that the parole grid is not carved in stone.
My advice to persons contemplating a plea agreement: never agree to serve a sentence or risk receiving a sentence unless you know that you could do every single day of it. Becaue you just might serve that long even if you are parole eligible on day one. The State Board of Pardons and Paroles follows a grid. But that grid is advisory. The Board can, in many cases, parole as soon as a day into a sentence or as late as the last day of a sentence. The Board can deny parole altogether. The grid, in the hands of trial counsel, can be in a dangerous thing, particularly if the client banks on it in making plea decisions.
If trial counsel brings the grid into plea discussions, it is important to explain that the Board is free to ignore their grid and grant parole sooner or later than the time the grid recommends. So a high grid is not necessarily the end of the world. And a low grid is not necessarily an indicator that you’ll be out soon, or ever.
The Board Doesn’t Have to Tell You Anything
The Board can do what it wants to do in cases where it has discretion. And the Board doesn’t have to tell you or anyone else what is in an inmate’s parole file or why it has made a particular decision. There could be a really bad item in your file that may make parole difficult. And there may be a great piece of information that could help you get parole. And you will never know about either.
All that stuff you see in the movies (i.e. Shawshank Redemption, Raising Arizona) where an inmate meets with the entire parole board to make a pitch isn’t the way parole is generally done in Georgia. In reality, a hearing officer works up the file and makes a particular report an written recommendation. That report is circulated among the Board for a vote. A good bit of the work is done on the front end. Members of the Board will generally not have the time to devote to the file that the hearing officer has. And you’ll never get to see that report or anything else in the file. However, the Board is often open to hear other information. The trick is getting the attention of an overworked Parole Board and particularly in competing with the kind of attention the hearing officer’s report will get. Even if the parole board is not going to grant parole the first time around, the first few months of a sentence are critical for the duration of the inmate’s time in prison. Because the initial parole decision will carry weight upon future considerations.
So, here’s how the appointments ended. I advised the first client that parole was not a possibility and declined representation. With the second, I advised that we could do two things. We could prepare a parole packet for presentation to the Board. We could also consider a habeas attack on the guilty plea since it was entered upon faulty advice about parole eligibility. We’ll see what happens.