There was a time a time not so long ago when a person could all but get away with murder.
Given a good plea bargain and the absence of a prison record, one might get off with as little as eight months in jail.To commit the same crime today, however, the best a killer in Utah could hope for is two years in prison for manslaughter and five to 12 years for second-degree murder - at least twice the prison time a killer would have served eight years ago.
In first-degree murder cases, inmates can now expect to serve the rest of their lives in prison. Eight years ago, it was 15 to 20 years.
"I think you're seeing a real change, not just in murder cases, but all felonies," said board member Victoria Palacios. "The length of stay for all offenders is going up."
The length of incarceration has been rising for several years, and the reason, said Palacios, is the Board of Pardons' use of sentencing guidelines recommended by the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. The commission made the recommendations at the behest of the Legislature, concerned that criminals were being dealt with too leniently.
While the guidelines call for longer prison sentences for all offenders, the new guidelines, initiated in 1985, come down particularly hard on violent and sex crimes. The Board of Pardons has responded accordingly. In 1980, the average amount of time served for first-degree felonies was 48 months. Today, it is 70 months.
"My views toward parole have changed," said Palacios. "When I first came on, we all had the assumption that everybody would get out of prison sooner or later. I don't have that
pinion at all any more. If you're a bad individual, you may never get out."
In at least nine cases, including the celebrated case of murderer Mark Hofmann, the Board of Pardons has ordered inmates to serve the rest of their lives in prison. That would have been unheard of eight years ago.
"Now the board gives out a lot of 10-year rehearings. It's common now," said Board of Pardons administrator Paul Sheffield. "Eight years ago it was extremely rare. The overall philosophy of the board has changed dramatically over what it was."
The board deviates from the guidelines as it sees fit. In 40 percent of the cases, inmates will serve sentences above, in some cases far above, the recommended guidelines. "Only one case in 20 results in a sentence below the guidelines," Sheffield said.
Palacios has become an advocate of sentencing guidelines, saying they reduce the disparity of prison sentences for those convicted of identical crimes. "After 3,000 cases, they all look alike," she said. "The guidelines promote equality, especially among co-defendants. That's something we haven't always had in the past."
The more lenient parole policies of the past were not so much a reflection of board members' personal philosophies. Rather it was a reflection of the state's entire attitude toward prisoners and corrections.
"As we became more experienced, we grew up," said Palacios, who has served on the board since 1981.
"The new guidelines are much closer to the board members personal feelings," added Sheffield. "And the public."
The Board of Pardons was established by the Utah Constitution. Until the early 1950s, the board consisted of the governor, the attorney general and the supreme court justices. The composition of the board was changed to a part-time panel appointed by the governor. About five years ago, the Board of Pardons became a full-time board.
The board has the authority to release anyone from prison, including those under death sentence. The only exception are sex offenders sentenced under minimum mandatory laws.