Comprehensive report critiques parole board

Aliza Kaplan works with PSU professor to gather data, interview parolees, involve students in process

Photo of a statue of a blindfolded woman holding scales and a sword
Courtesy of Lewis & Clark

Professors at the law school and Portland State University (PSU) collaborated on a project to create a comprehensive report examining the decision process of the Oregon Board of Parole and how it affects potential parolees. 

Aliza Kaplan is a Lewis & Clark law professor and director of the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic (CJRC), a program that allows students to get hands-on experience working on a variety of cases. Kaplan was recently awarded the 2022 President’s award from the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the 2022 Juneteenth Freedom. Kaplan took charge of the interviewing parolees, involving law students in the process. Associate Professor Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice at PSU Christopher Cambell worked on the data collection aspects of the report, searching for patterns in the responses. 

“We wanted to do the project because here at the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic, we represent people on parole in certain release types of release hearings, and we have learned a ton over the last five-plus years working on these cases,” Kaplan said. “And the way that the clinic works is the more we do hands-on casework, the more we see the problems in the system.”  

Kaplan began to compile a list of issues she noticed in the parole process such as patterns of neglect and lack of information on how the system works.  

“We thought the best way to bring attention to the parole process, and to understand with evidence and data what’s going on, was to do an academic study,” Kaplan said. “So we partnered with Dr. Campbell, and we did the study and the report. And you know, that entire process, and we also represented people at the same time in all types of release hearings.” 

The process involved a mixed method technique, meaning they used both qualitative and quantitative data collection to research all aspects of the parole process, including the potential parolees and the board itself. 

“The whole idea of you having multiple methods or mixed methods is to try and triangulate and try to find all those points that are pointing to the same direction and saying, ‘Yeah, this is probably a pattern and here’s probably why,’” Campbell said. “So I designed this study as best as I could with the given constraints.” 

The survey that Campbell created was distributed in five large lot boxes that weighed between 35 pounds and 96 pounds and went to five different facilities. 

“They were distributed by the Department of Corrections’ presence across the state, and it was with great coordination with the DOC folks on the ground there and their willingness to help us that they were able to ship around these boxes to make it so that they were available to adults in custody,” Campbell said. 

In addition to the report, Kaplan plans to bring legislative recommendations to the state during the next election. In accordance with their observations, Kaplan is requesting more funding for the CJRC to allow adults in custody (AICs) to have access to lawyers for longer. The public defenders assigned to AICs spend about 15 hours on each case, while lawyers at the clinic allocate around 90 hours to spend on each of their cases. 

The clinic needs more funding to entice lawyers to take these cases and give parolees the best shot at understanding the process and acting accordingly. 

“They involve really telling a person’s entire life story,” Kaplan said. “It involves putting together a memo for the board, so you have to interview the person and put together materials for the board.” 

It is a complex process and one that the average adult probably does not understand. Many people do not have access to comprehensive information about the parole process, especially those who are isolated from society in prison. 

“The adults in custody need more support in their lives, whether they get out of prison and are on the line and they need people to navigate them through the parole process. It’s very complicated … and people are all coming from very different perspectives, backgrounds, education and ages,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan is also advocating for more rehabilitation opportunities to be offered for inmates. 

“One of the things we’re always going to be pushing for is more programs from the minute people enter prison,” Kaplan said. “People aren’t always ready, but they should be allowed to have access to programs that will help them improve themselves and rehabilitate. From day one.” 

Kaplan said the Department of Corrections does not offer any rehabilitation programs for sex offenders and has very few domestic violence programs. Once eligible, the Parole Board wants to see AIC’s participating in rehab programs but due to the lack of availability, many are not able to do so. 

Kaplan also worked on a report that called to change Oregon’s death penalty laws and was successful in narrowing down who will receive the death penalty.

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