Senator seeks makeover for Alaska parole board

a legislative hearing
Sylvester Byrd Jr. and Megan Edge testify in the Senate State Affairs Committee regarding parole board reforms on March 7, 2023. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Sylvester Byrd Jr. served nearly three decades in prison for a murder he committed when he was 20 years old. He said as a young man with a long sentence his initial attitude in jail was “who cares,” but then he began a path of self-improvement that led to parole. Three years later, he has a job in Anchorage, a church, and family support.

“I truly am trying to be a better human being. Plant roots in my community, be a part of my community that I have damaged,” he said.

Byrd is one of a shrinking number of Alaskans granted parole each year. Reasonable hope for parole, he said, helps inmates work towards better lives like he did, which is why he testified at the Capitol last week in support of reforms to the state’s parole board.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, would make changes to the board that could increase access to parole for the state’s growing incarcerated population.

The state’s five-member parole board needs more members to work through hearings promptly and better reflect the incarcerated population, Tobin said. Her bill would also strike a provision that allows the board to deny parole if they think granting it may diminish the seriousness of the crime.

“Parole is about providing hope. And it has a ripple effect: When there are folks who receive parole, others understand that they too should have hope,” Tobin said.

Parole board members are appointed by the governor and serve five-year terms; under state law they are to represent the “ethnic, racial, sexual and cultural population of the state.” But Tobin said she realized while confirming members in committee last year “that actually was not what was occurring; that there seemed to be one perspective contained in membership of that board.”

Senate Bill 176 would expand the board from five to seven members and require five of the members to represent specific groups, including a physician, psychologist or psychiatrist; a crime victim or relation of a crime victim; a drug and alcohol treatment provider or person who has experienced drug or alcohol addiction; someone who has been unconditionally acquitted of a felony in the state and a member of one of the state’s federally recognized tribes.

Requirements like these are in use in other states. In Montana, one member of the parole board must be a member of a local tribe. In Oklahoma, two parole board members must have training in social work or mental health. The proposal would cap the amount of time each board member could serve at two five-year terms. Currency there are no term limits.

The updates take aim at a recent reversal: in the last five years the parole board has denied twice as many requests as it has granted.

a graph
Graph from the office Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, using state data.

Megan Edge, director of the Prison Project with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said her organization supports the bill because it works towards a balance between the punitive and rehabilitative goals of the criminal legal system.

“First, it takes critical steps to ensure that incarcerated people appearing before the Alaska Board of Parole receive fair consideration,” she said. “And second, this bill ensures that the board fulfills its purpose, which is to assess someone’s likelihood of success should they be granted discretionary parole.”

Edge is a former employee of the Department of Corrections and so had access to parole hearings, which are ordinarily closed to the public, and said she supports removing the board’s latitude to deny parole if its members think granting it would diminish the seriousness of the crime. She called the provision “vague” and said that it has the effect of retrying the crime rather than examining the rehabilitative success and potential of the incarcerated person.

She said the hope of parole is an effective incentive for prisoners to try rehabilitation programs, and described how an older prisoner who would likely not leave prison had decided against that programming. But when he realized his younger cellmate with a shorter sentence looked up to him, he began taking classes to set a good example, she said.

“Now this 20-year-old who will be home in June is taking anger management, he’s taking the treatment class,” she said. “I think that incentive not only makes our prisons safer for everybody who lives and works there, but also our communities, because when that young man comes home in June, he’ll have job skills and have been treated for his behavioral health issues.”

Leitoni Tupou, chair of the Board of Parole, said the board weighs the seriousness of the offense provision heavily. “We’re not taking it lightly because the degree of the conviction determined the seriousness of the offense,” he said. “From my perspective, a murder case with a sentence of 100 years versus a DUI or shoplifting — there is a difference in the seriousness of the offense.”

Sylvester Byrd Jr. said he understands the seriousness of a crime — it’s a reality he faces every day. But his years on parole show that even those who commit the most serious crimes can be rehabilitated.

“I work hard while being outside to ensure that I’m not a threat. The stigma of a felon is like I’m some purple monster-eater or whatever. And I deal with that every day,” he said, adding that his support system helps him bear the stress.

He said that after a long sentence, those support systems can disappear over time: “For others, their support network is dwindling, because they are older and the people who they have are passing away.”

The bill may be taken up again by the Senate State Affairs Committee and must move through the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

Previous articleAnchorage Chamber of Commerce mayoral candidate forum | Addressing Alaskans
Next articleAfter a quarter century in power, Russian President Putin isn’t going anywhere