Time for a Makeover?

It's more than a little ironic that the Board of Pardons and Paroles, today the subject of intense controversy over the secrecy of its practices, was originally conceived as a remedy to executive corruption. Prior to 1936, the governor had almost unlimited power to grant clemency to condemned inmates at his or her discretion. This power was often abused, most famously by Gov. Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, who granted almost 4,000 requests for commutations in 1922 alone, accepting payments from spared inmates in exchange for their clemency. An outraged Legislature created the board by a constitutional amendment in 1936, and charged it with giving the governor its binding "written signed recommendation and advice" on clemency petitions. Without this recommendation, the governor can only grant a single, 30-day reprieve; to date, virtually no other state limits the power of its executive in this manner.

In time, the parole board's membership was expanded; first to six, then to nine, then to its current 18 members. In 1989, the board's operations were severed from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice by an act of the Legislature, and its members were assigned to seven regional offices throughout the state. This far-flung geographic distribution, board members say, is the primary factor limiting their ability to hold hearings on clemency petitions, which are often filed as 11th-hour appeals by inmates facing death within the next five days. Copies of the appeals and supplementary information, compiled at a single central office, are sent to board members by airborne express mail and generally arrive overnight; any additional information is sent by overnight express or fax, depending on the length of information and the amount of time remaining until the scheduled execution.

Board members, although appointed by the governor, are required to go through a lengthy application process, one which tilts the pool of applicants heavily toward criminal justice workers and those who have served on boards locally in the past, according to the governor's appointments office. Current board members include a schoolteacher, a social worker, and a former prison official; only one board member is a licensed attorney. The chairman of the board, Victor Rodriguez, is a former police chief from Brownsville.

-- E.C.B.