SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole must take steps to ensure consistent and fair decisions for releasing or extending the stay of prison inmates, according to a new legislative audit.
And Chairwoman Angela Micklos told the Legislative Audit Committee on Monday that the board lacked critical details when it released the inmate who later gunned down Unified police officer Doug Barney.
"It was simply a lack of information. I'm not really at liberty to say more about why we didn’t have what we didn't have because we don't know why we weren't given the information. But we didn't have the information that would have been critical to our decision," she said.
Micklos told the committee that the board is "usually the last to find out anything."
A federal judge's decision in December, along with an order from the parole board, allowed Cory Lee Henderson to be released from prison, even though a federal grand jury had earlier indicted him on new drug and firearm charges.
Board spokesman Greg Johnson said last month he doesn't know if it would have made a difference in the board's decision to release Henderson, but he called it a "critical" piece of information they would have liked to have had.
Henderson shot and killed Barney at the scene of a traffic accident Jan. 17. Police later fatally shot Henderson.
The audit revealed that the five-member board still does all of its work on paper, including handwritten notes that auditors said are unclear, and does not have an electronic records system, making coordination with other agencies and measuring its performance difficult.
"In most cases, we could not decipher the handwritten notes to validate that clerical staff entered decisions correctly," according to the audit.
Auditors also found that rather than being evidence based, board members make decisions in parole hearings using their professional judgment and experience, which can lead to bias.
"As a result, cases with similar circumstances may have widely different outcomes that may depend significantly on the person or persons making the decision in each case," according to Office of the Legislative Auditor General.
The audit recommends the board use a structured decision-making process that assesses risks and needs of inmates.
The ACLU of Utah has received complaints for several years about the board’s lack of transparency, accountability and consistency,” said Leah Farrell, staff attorney.
“This audit makes quite clear the many reasons that the board’s processes and practices are confusing and frustrating for victims, inmates, families and even defense attorneys," she said.
The audit notes that several inmate advocacy groups have expressed concern that similar crimes result in disparate sentences. Prison inmates also complained that "rationale sheets" the board uses are confusing and vague, said Kade Minchey, audit supervisor.
Greg Johnson, board administrative coordinator, said some inmates expect a lengthy explanation of the board's decision, which is difficult given its heavy workload. Last year, it made nearly 18,000 decisions, including releasing inmates and setting conditions of parole and weighing in on more than 1,000 parole violations.
Johnson said inmates asked questions such as: Why did the board make this decision about me? What can I do to improve for the next hearing? Am I being treated consistently with other people?
"It's only their lives. It's hard for me to fault them for feeling that way," said House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake. "They're talking about whether they get out of prison or spend months or years more in prison. I sympathize with them."
Johnson said answers to those questions are "completely legitimate" and the board wants to be able to answer them for inmates and the public.
The audit also showed that the average time an inmate spends in prison has increased from 23 months to 30 months in the past decade. In 2014 that amounted to 156,000 more bed days at a cost of $12 million, according to the audit.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, called the audit timely for legislators because it shows areas where they can make much-needed changes in the board of pardons.
Micklos told the committee the board agrees with the audit and intends to put its recommendations into practice.