September 22, 2022

CJRC and PSU Publish Comprehensive Report on Oregon Parole System

The Criminal Justice Reform Clinic and PSU issue a report on Oregon’s parole system, recommending critical reforms.

Lewis & Clark Law School’s Criminal Justice Reform Clinic (CJRC) and Portland State University (PSU) recently published, An Eye on Reform: Examining decisions, procedures, and outcomes of the Oregon Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision release process. The report describes the history of parole in Oregon, as well as the current state of the system, and recommends a series of reforms that would improve the quality of the parole release process. We reached out to members of CJRC and PSU’s Dr. Chris Campbell (associate professor of criminology and criminal justice) to learn more about this report and the role it plays in larger efforts for parole reform.

Professor Aliza Kaplan, director of the CJRC and law clinic students have been representing adults in custody (AICs) in Oregon’s parole system for five years as part of the CJRC’s Parole Project. “Representing AICs in their parole hearings is intense,” says Caroline Taylor ’22, “The hearings I participated in lasted for several hours a piece. It’s also an experience that petitioners have sometimes waited 25 or 30 years to have, so their emotions and attentions are understandably heightened during the hearing. Petitioners are frequently asked to recount the details of their crimes and their thinking at that time, and then be able to fast forward several decades to demonstrate how they’ve transformed and rehabilitated.”

Taylor notes that the hearings can also offer moments of healing. “Many times it’s the first opportunity a petitioner will have to speak in front of the victims of their crime since sentencing. It can be a powerful moment of healing for petitioners and victims. Seeing the potential for meaningful healing between people who have committed deep harm and people who have experienced deep harm made me want to continue parole work.”

As a result of their representation at parole hearings, CJRC students expressed their dismay with the larger system. The hearings decided major questions of liberty, but most AICs don’t have an attorney to represent them. And while many AICs want to rehabilitate, they often lack access to the programs that would help them.

Unsatisfied with the status quo, CJRC took the issues identified in their case work and partnered with PSU’s Dr. Christopher Campbell to examine the parole release process and identify targeted solutions for improving it; It was a perfect match. According to Dr. Campbell, “Working with the CJRC has been a great experience. Every suggestion I offered to help improve the integrity, reliability, and validity of the study was met with an open mind. As a result, the report captures a strong mixed method effort to identify areas that could be reformed to help everyone involved in the parole process - the Board, the victims, and the petitioners/adults in custody.”

One formative experience for law students was training for and conducting qualitative interviews for the study. Bre Browning ’23 explained, “Every interview we conducted was different. That was intimidating at first because you have your list of questions you’re wanting to go through, but at the same time it was great to be able to give the interviewees space to speak about their experiences without interruption so that we could gather as much information about the process as possible. Overall the experience was a way to talk about the parole process that was different from what I had been focusing on in my main work with the CJRC. Rather than focusing on an upcoming appearance before the board, we were asking interviewees to walk us through their past experiences.”

By pursuing this academic study, CJRC and PSU have emphasized a collaborative, problem-solving posture. It’s not just about adults in custody; the goal of the report was to learn more about parole in order to work toward a system that better serves all parties involved in the process.

“The parole board doesn’t have what it needs to do its job well, and adults in custody don’t have what they need to understand the process fully or to be successful.” says Prof. Kaplan. For those with sentences that allow the possibility of parole in the event of rehabilitation, adults in custody often find themselves without access to the programs that could rehabilitate them. But reform is difficult. As Kaplan puts it, “It’s really hard, in general, to make legislators and the public care about these issues. And then you’re saying, ‘care about this and give us money to fix it.’ Our job with this report is to communicate why spending some money now will save money later and achieve the goals of rehabilitation and public safety.”

This isn’t the first time CJRC has partnered with others on an academic study analyzing our criminal justice system. In 2016 ,CJRC partnered with Seattle University’s Dr. Peter Collins on ‘Oregon’s Death Penalty: A Cost Analysis’. Professor Kaplan learned a lot from that experience. “We published the death penalty report in 2016, and the law didn’t change until 2019 in the Oregon legislature. Still, the report was a significant factor in changing the law,” notes Kaplan, “Part of advocating for change is not expecting immediate gratification. It just doesn’t work that way. Another example is CJRC’s advocacy on non-unanimous juries in Oregon; we have been working on that issue for seven years, in the state and federal courts, in the legislature, in the media, educating the public and it’s not over yet. Sometimes advocacy takes twists and turns, wins and losses, but if you believe in something you just have to keep at it. ”

Kaplan is applying those lessons in patience to the new parole report, “I don’t know how the report will impact our upcoming legislative session. But I do know that we’re going to push for some of the recommendations from the report, and we will keep at it. We’ve learned a lot, and we are reaching out to all folks involved in the parole process to join us. All the changes we will be advocating for this session go toward making a better process for all.”

Kaplan notes that the report is only the beginning, “My hope is that this will stimulate public interest and generate serious conversation on parole and other issues in our criminal legal system. CJRC will be presenting on the study, bringing legislators into prisons to meet folks affected by parole, leading meetings with parole board members and legislators, and testifying.”

Much of this work will be done by Lewis & Clark law students, who are learning how to advocate for change. To those CJRC students set to carry on the torch, recent graduate Caroline Taylor ’22 has advice, “Doing parole work is difficult, but not always for the reasons you’d expect. The law is complex, and the rules focus on a petitioner’s past. But the work is worthwhile. The petitioners will make you smile, they will make you laugh, they will make you cry with how full your heart feels doing this work with them. And by the time you get to a hearing, you’ll be ready and they’ll be ready. Lean on fellow clinic students, the CJRC staff attorneys, and Professor Kaplan- the clinic is a special place, and they’ve all got you.”