Severe budget cuts have gutted the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency, and its executive director says he's "deeply concerned" that the agency no longer will be able to do its job adequately.
"It's like a graveyard in here," Duane Belcher says, gesturing to empty cubicles and vacated offices. "Doing what I've had to do up here is the worst thing I've ever done professionally in my life."
Belcher is referring to staff layoffs effective July 1 that have decimated the Clemency Board, which oversees parole and pardon hearings, sentence commutation recommendations, revocations and other public safety issues. The losses include the entire four-person case analysis team and two employees who provided legally mandated notifications of hearings and other actions to crime victims, officials and others.
Under Arizona law, the board must make "reasonable efforts" to inform victims about pending Clemency Board hearings or potential actions. But Belcher says the agency long had been going beyond reasonable efforts, looking hard to find the most elusive of victims, some of whom hadn't been in contact with the criminal justice system for years.
"I can't tell you the number of letters we've had here from victims and their families thanking us for letting them know what was up," says Belcher, a longtime Clemency Board member who took over as executive director only last month. "For many victims, the Clemency Board is the first opportunity they have to speak publicly about their crime, without any constraints.
"Now, I'm sure we're just not going to find some people that we used to be able to find. We're trying to keep our heads above water here, and that's it."
The layoffs were necessitated by the state budget crunch, which has meant a cut by almost half of the board's already lean $1.3 million budget. The slash-and-burn routine at the Clemency Board extended to the four board members, whose salaries were cut from $54,000 to $44,000 annually.
Says former board member John Waugh, "In their effort to save pennies, they [the Governor's Office] have created a situation that will have a direct bearing on the safety and well-being of our citizens."
Waugh a retired FBI agent who resigned from the board last month "for personal reasons" isn't being hyperbolic. Last month, for example, a case analyst scanning the file of a hopeful parolee saw that authorities had erred by noting the man's date of incarceration as 1991, not 1997.
That error was pivotal, because that inmate wasn't eligible for release for a few more years. Arizona abolished parole starting in 1994 prison inmates now must serve at least 85 percent of their imposed sentence.
(More than 4,000 inmates at the Department of Corrections still are eligible for parole, because they were sentenced before the so-called "truth in sentencing" provisions went into effect in January 1994.)
Belcher says the four board members now will be responsible for doing their own preliminary analyses (and homework) before voting on a prisoner's case: "As a former board member and a former case analyst, for that matter I know what goes into looking properly at each case. It's just going to be impossible for us to do the job we're supposed to do under these circumstances."
Governor Jane Dee Hull seemed aware of the dangerously deteriorating situation at the Clemency Board in a May 13 letter to each member of the Arizona Legislature.
Hull wrote, "The proposed cuts will result in the agency's inability to notify victims of pending matters and to provide proper research and documentation to members as they prepare for hearings. These are policy changes that do not belong in the budget. Before eviscerating an agency, a discussion of the ramifications should take place in a hearing that the public has had notice of. We need a scalpel, not a machete, to fix this agency."
But that public hearing never took place, nor did Hull's minions heed her advice about using a fiscal scalpel.
Instead, Duane Belcher soon was saddled with the distasteful task of informing almost half of the 22-person staff at the Clemency Board that their jobs had been eliminated.
News of the demise of the victims' notification unit comes as a shock to victims' rights advocates contacted by New Times. Phoenix attorney Steve Twist, an architect of the Victims' Bill of Rights that became a constitutional amendment in November 1990, recalls how victim notification became front-page news in May 1993.
In 1974, a Coconino County judge sentenced Eric Mageary to 25 years to life on a rape conviction. Under the old Criminal Code, Mageary became eligible for parole in 1982 but was denied his freedom until 1993, when he won a release to home arrest.
It turned out, however, that authorities hadn't contacted Mageary's victim since 1984, and she'd known nothing of the scheduled 1993 release. Just hours before Mageary's release, the Coconino County Attorney filed a special action with the Arizona Court of Appeals.
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The appellate court stayed Mageary's release and later issued a ruling that resulted in the rapist's return to prison, where he still resides.
"We do not attempt to define for all future cases the precise degree and kind of efforts [to locate victims] required [of the board]," the court wrote. "Determining what are reasonable efforts' requires a case-by-case analysis."
Despite the demise of the parole system in Arizona, the Clemency Board retains a powerful position in the criminal justice system. Under state law, a governor may grant a pardon or a reprieve from execution only upon recommendation from the board.
"It really blows me away that no one has had the foresight to see how tearing this agency apart is a bad thing," says Duane Belcher, who was appointed by Governor Hull and serves at the pleasure of the board. "We're a law-and-order operation, and this is a law-and-order state. But we just don't have enough resources anymore to do our jobs as well as we need to."