History of Parole in Georgia
Separation of powers among the Legislative, Judicial, and Executive is a cornerstone of our system of government. Written into the U.S. Constitution, this system of checks and balances has withstood the test of time in providing our society with safeguards from errors or excesses in any branch.
Nowhere is it more important to apply these principles than in criminal justice. The U.S. Constitution gave the Executive Branch the power to pardon as a check against the authority of the Judiciary. The authors of the Constitution realized that any criminal code would be too restrictive and severe without access to a ready means to handle exceptions.
State Governments use Federal Model
Like the Federal government, the typical state strengthened its checks and balances by giving pardoning power to its Executive Branch. However, as a tool for rehabilitating ex-inmates and protecting society, a pardon was limited. It was too abrupt and irrevocable. What was needed was a more flexible system which would supervise after release and deter misconduct through the threat of revocation. This need was met by the introduction of a new type of clemency called parole, a word derived from French parole d'honneur (word of honor), indicating the released prisoner's promise to do no wrong.
The first legislation in the United States authorizing parole was enacted in Massachusetts in 1837. The duties of those first Massachusetts parole officers included helping released prisoners find jobs and providing them with tools, clothing, and transportation at state expense.
A wave of demand for prison reform in the 1870s led to the opening of the Elmira Reformatory in New York State in 1876. It used a limited form of the indeterminate sentence and a method of awarding marks and parole based on those marks. After release, Elmira inmates remained under supervision of the Reformatory for six months, during which time parole could be revoked if they violated release conditions.
By 1880 three states had parole, and by 1889 the number had grown to twelve. By 1944 all 48 states had enacted parole legislation.
Parole Arrives in Georgia
Parole came to Georgia in 1908 when the General Assembly voted to give the Prison Commission authority to implement a system of "parole or conditional pardons." Parole could be granted upon the approval of the full Commission and the Governor. The Commission had power to issue warrants and arrest a parole violator, arbitrarily allowing or disallowing him credit for time served on parole. After twelve months a parolee was eligible for consideration for a full pardon and restoration of his rights of citizenship.
During the next decade the Prison Commission observed the benefits of parole in equalizing disparate sentencing across the State. They also reported the advantages of assigning responsible persons to help the offender reestablish himself in society.
But while the general principle of parole was appreciated, the system itself remained primitive and understaffed. For example, there was no such thing as a trained parole officer; parolees were put under the supervision of an employer or other sponsor. Despite that, parole helped many offenders begin productive and law-abiding lives.
Separation from Governor Leads to Independent Board
In 1938, the Prison Commission was redesignated the State Prison and Parole Commission, and the administration of the penal camps and institutions was taken from it and placed under the State Board of Penal Administration. Relieved of prison administrative duties, the Commission was given broader powers to grant paroles without approval of the Governor and without limitation on its authority "save the welfare of the State." However, the Commission was limited by a shortage of funds and so had only six parole officers on its staff in 1940.
In the early 1940s there were serious questions raised about the handling of pardons by some Governors' offices. Public concern led the General Assembly to enact legislation, signed into law in February 1943, which created the State Board of Pardons and Paroles as an independent agency to administer executive clemency.
In August 1943 Georgia voters ratified, by a ratio of four and a half to one, a landmark amendment to the State Constitution. It established in that document the Parole Board's authority to grant paroles, pardons, and reprieves, to commute sentences, including death sentences, to remit sentences, and to remove disabilities imposed by law. It was given a staff of parole officers to investigate cases and supervise persons granted parole.
The Constitution provided that the Governor would appoint the Board members to seven-year terms subject to confirmation by the State Senate. Once confirmed, members would be insulated from political pressures by the fact that no one official could remove them from office until they completed their terms. Their autonomy was enhanced by their right to elect their own chairman annually.
The Board had only three members until a Constitutional amendment, effective in 1973, allowed expansion to its present size of five members.
Developing the System of Professionalism and Accountability
The Georgia Board has continually strived for excellence in both parole decision-making and parolee supervision. In 1979 the Board began using Parole Decision Guidelines, popularly called the "grid system." Guidelines weigh an inmate's crime severity and his likelihood of success on parole as revealed by predictive factors from his criminal and social history. Resulting Guidelines recommendations help the Board make more consistent, soundly based, and understandable decisions.
In 1970, the agency began requiring four-year college degrees of its parole officers. Parole officer training in criminology, human behavior, communication skills, and law enforcement increased yearly. Then in 1983, Georgia parole officers became certified peace officers operating under the rigorous standards established by the Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) Council. This means all officers undergo six weeks of POST-certified candidate training plus ongoing annual training in addition to agency training requirements. In 1993, the Board doubled required training to ensure officers obtain the most up-to-date knowledge to protect society.