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At a recent parole hearing at the Montana State Prison, state Board of Pardons and Parole members study the file of an inmate appearing before them. From left, Peter Lawrenson of Missoula, Chairman Mike McKee of Hamilton and Coleen Magera of Thompson Falls.

HELENA – State lawmakers studying the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole indicated Monday there’s strong division among them whether to overhaul the board’s powers on deciding and defining prison inmates’ parole.

Representatives of the state judiciary and county prosecutors also said Monday they’re adamantly opposed to a proposal to restrict the board’s power to attach conditions to parole, and instead leave that decision to sentencing judges.

“Judges do not have crystal balls,” said Beth McLaughlin, administrator for the state Supreme Court. “They have no idea how that offender is going to do in the correctional system.”

But several members of the Law and Justice Interim Committee said they may support a bill requiring the board to audio- or videotape its proceedings, and make those recordings available to the public.

Still, the panel made no decisions on whether to support any proposals to revise Parole Board procedures or powers.

“We will continue on to our next meeting and possibly find some other ways to address (these concerns) and look at some of the proposals,” said Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, the chair of the panel.

If the panel throws its support behind any bill, it would be introduced at the 2015 Legislature.

The bipartisan committee has been examining Parole Board procedures for the past several months, in the wake of complaints from inmates, their families and advocates that the board is too arbitrary or restrictive in deciding parole.

Board members have defended the system, saying they need broad discretion to consider public safety and an inmate’s ability to succeed on parole when deciding what conditions must be met before granting parole.

Victims’ advocates also have defended the board, saying it rightly considers the impact on victims of paroling an inmate.

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Pam Cyr, whose brother, Jim Richards, was murdered 24 years ago, appeared before the committee Monday, saying the board needs to remain independent of the Corrections System and make its own judgments on inmates’ parole requests.

She said the only proposal before the committee that makes any sense is the proposal to record the Parole Board hearings.

“That will prove if there’s an issue,” she said. “If someone says ‘I wasn’t treated fairly,’ then you can listen to the hearing. … That will tell you what you have to know.”

The committee Monday briefly discussed five possible proposals, including bills to require recording of Parole Board hearings, prohibit the board from setting parole conditions, revise board rule-making procedures and to more narrowly define the criteria for granting parole.

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Sen. Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell, said he’s thought for some time the board should have less discretion, and should focus primarily on the inmates’ record in prison.

Yet other panel members said they’re not convinced the Parole Board’s procedures need an overhaul.

“As of yet, I’ve been unable to see that the Parole Board is necessarily broken,” said Rep. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings.

Mark Murphy, who represents county prosecutors, said restricting the Parole Board from attaching conditions to parole and leaving that function to judges would create thousands of additional “resentencing hearings” for criminal offenders.

The workload and cost for prosecutors and judges would increase dramatically, costing the state millions of dollars a year, he said.

“The cost on this is staggering and the end result is nothing,” Murphy said.

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Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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