Nebraska parole board members will be removed from that paid job if they miss a dozen parole hearing days per year, says a new state law signed by Gov. Jim Pillen this week. 

This parole reform law follows a 2022 Flatwater Free Press story revealing the board’s spotty attendance, and showing it sometimes led to parole-eligible Nebraskans staying longer inside the state’s overcrowded prisons. 

In the next year, the full, five-person board began to show up more often for parole hearings.   

Now, the new law will make higher attendance levels mandatory, reducing delays in parole, said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Terrell McKinney. 

“I don't think it's too restrictive,” said McKinney, a Democrat representing North Omaha. “One should go to work. I mean, we get paid less at the Legislature, but we’re expected to be here pretty much every day.”

Failing to attend 12 full days of hearings in a calendar year would constitute a neglect of duty by a Nebraska Board of Parole member, which will result in their removal from office. Medical and family emergencies won’t count toward the number of days missed.

The five governor-appointed members of the board decide whether a parole candidate is ready to serve the remainder of their sentence in the community outside of prison. The members are paid $86,407 per year, and the chairperson makes $94,642, according to Flatwater’s Nebraska Public Payrolls database

Three members must be present to form a quorum.

The board typically reserves 8 to 10 days in the latter half of the month for parole hearings, according to board members and their public calendars. 

A 2022 Flatwater investigation found that the parole board’s five members appeared together at only 37% of parole board hearings between May 2018 and December 2021. All five members missed at least 13% of all hearing days during that time frame. 

This matters because, when the board was at full strength, it granted parole at a higher rate than when only three or four members showed up for hearings, FFP’s analysis of data for those three years shows. 

When all five members were present and voting, the board paroled 62.6% of the cases it heard. When one or two board members were absent or not voting, the board paroled 56.4% of the cases before it.

The full board then started to show up together far more frequently at hearings in the months following that original story, and the original introduction of McKinney’s bill, as the Flatwater Free Press reported last year. By early 2023, the parole board was appearing together at hearings twice as often as it had in 2021.

Hearings with missing parole members are sometimes missed opportunities to reduce the prison population, McKinney said in an interview this week. 

“I think attendance is important ... especially when we have an overcrowding situation in the state,” he told the Flatwater Free Press. 

McKinney said he has heard from parole hearing attendees that parole board members have shown up more consistently since the bill’s introduction. 

Parole board chairperson Rosalyn Cotton told the Flatwater Free Press in an interview last week that she saw no problems with parole board attendance to begin with. 

She said board members have often missed hearings due to medical emergencies, family leave and training, as she told McKinney last year. 

“I didn't know anything more than why we would have to miss more than 12 days or whatever, if we were not out on sick or other personal reasons,” said Cotton.

She said parole board members already notify human resources why and how long they expect to be out of the office if they have medical conditions. 

The law will take effect mid-July. As a result, Cotton said, she will be sure to track parole board member attendance. 

The law increases parole board accountability, but it also raises questions about the board’s professionalism, said Mario Paparozzi, a leading parole researcher and former chairman of the New Jersey State Parole Board.

“What the heck has been going on that you needed to pass a law to do such a basic thing as to have people show up for work,” he said.

A bill mandating attendance wouldn’t have been necessary if the board had diligently performed their duties, he told the Flatwater Free Press. The chair of the board should monitor members’ performance.

When Paparozzi served as the head of New Jersey’s parole board, he said, he led the team and cleaned up a backlog left by previous board members. “Why? Because I made people work. Not working was not an option,” he said.

McKinney’s bill includes sweeping provisions to reform the parole process, including moving parole supervision authority and officers back under the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, requiring the board to provide specific reasons for deferral and denial, prohibiting denials because of programming delays and setting up parole school sessions to help with reentry.

A former parolee, Josh Carse applauded the bill’s passage. His hearing in March 2021 was deferred for another month by a three-member board. He believes that, if a full board had been present, he would have been paroled a month sooner. 

He needed three yes votes, but board member Bob Twiss voted no without telling him why, he told the Flatwater Free Press. 

Not having a full board was listed as the reason for Carse’s deferral in parole records.

Carse and other parole candidates have expressed willingness to receive feedback from parole board members, but said they hoped to present their cases to a full board. 

At the parole hearing a month later, he obtained approval from a four-member board in a unanimous vote. He believes the only difference then was the makeup of the board. 

“The parole board's job is to be there,” he said. 

Carse now works as a welder in Fremont. 

“People’s lives depend on that. People’s freedom will depend on you being able to schedule stuff correctly,” he said. 

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.