“No one should be blindsided by the fact that someone who killed a family member showed up free one day.”
Those are the words of Tim Erickson, whose mother, Susan Erickson, was raped and murdered by Terrance Shaw, a convicted killer who was paroled by Tony Evers’ appointee. Erickson, who was a small child when his mother died, didn’t find out that Shaw was released until a year later.
In fact, Erickson and his brother, who were Susan’s closest living kin, learned about the parole from a reporter. The state never told them.
We have worked extensively with Erickson to compile a list of changes to the parole system that we would like to see the state Legislature and governor enact this session. They are also meant to reflect the concerns we heard from many victims’ families during our parole series last fall and summer. Erickson tells us he wants to help other victims’ families. He never wants someone else to go through what his family has; and, as we reported last year, the state has systemically failed to notify victims’ families about paroles and parole hearings.
There is a parole transparency bill pending in the Legislature as we speak. A public hearing is Tuesday. It is a great start, and we commend the legislators who have proposed it. It was introduced by Senators Wanggaard, Bradley, James, Ballweg, Cabral-Guevara, Cowles, Jacque, Marklein, Nass and Stroebel; cosponsored by Representatives Spiros, Duchow, Schraa, Allen, Brandtjen, Dittrich, Donovan, Edming, Knodl, Michalski, Murphy, O’Connor, Rettinger, Rozar, Schutt, Steffen and Wichgers.
The bill eliminates the open meetings exception for parole hearings and “requires that the Parole Commission provide notice of all meetings on the DOC Internet site.” This is great.
The bill contains the following posting requirements:
“The bill requires DOC to post certain information about the actions of the Parole Commission on its Internet site for public access. Under the bill, DOC must
post any guidance documents that the Parole Commission uses when making parole
decisions. DOC must post individuals granted parole, denied parole, and returned
to prison following the revocation of parole.”
This is a great provision, and it should pass. It’s one of the key things victims’ families we have spoken to are seeking: More transparency. It would be good to specify how quickly DOC must do this after a parolee is released so they can’t endlessly delay.
Furthermore, DOC “must also post monthly and annual totals of the number of persons granted parole, denied parole, and returned to prison following the revocation of parole. The annual totals must be presented by the crime for which the individual was convicted; the sex, race, and age of the individual; and the locality in which the individual was convicted.”
This is also great. For example, the Fire and Police Commission in Milwaukee allows the public to download the decisions against police officers and to learn which hearings are coming up for which officer. The parole information could be handled similarly. Why are paroled killers not given as much public scrutiny as police officers?
We applaud the proposed changes.
However, we suggest these additions:
1. Provide a zoom option for families
Allow victims’ family members the option of appearing at parole hearings by zoom. Some tell us it’s too traumatic to go in person, but they think it would be more impactful than written statements for parole commissioners to see and hear them.
2. Expand the state victim notification time periods
Expand the state notification time period to alert victims and their families about upcoming parole hearings from three weeks to three months. Also, expand the victim notification requirement to families for when an inmate is paroled from seven days to three months. Do the same for law enforcement both in the communities where the crime occurred and where the parolee would live.
Current state law says, “The notice shall be by 1st class mail to an office’s or a person’s last-known address sent at least 3 weeks before the interview or hearing upon the application for parole.” We think it should be 90 days.
Regarding notification of the decision to grant parole: Current state law says, “The department shall make a reasonable attempt to send the notice, postmarked at least 7 days before a prisoner is released on parole or extended supervision, to the last-known address of the persons under sub. (2).” We think it should be at least 90 days. This change is very important to Erickson.
3. Mandate Transparency for the State’s Earned Release Programs
Create a similar requirement to tell the public the names of inmates granted earned release (Challenge Incarceration Program and Earned Release Program) and for what offense. It’s currently impossible to figure this out if you don’t have a name already and there are many they won’t tell us about at all and that don’t fall under parole grants for some reason.
4. Make Paroled Killers Register Publicly – Add Them to the Sex Offender Registry So Victims Know Where They Are Living
Require a public internet registry for people paroled of homicide offenses that is modeled on the sex offender registry and provides to the public the address of the parolees. Victim families of paroled killers are very upset that they can’t figure out where the parolees are living. The state refuses to release this information beyond city. They won’t release specific addresses. Victims want to know if the killer is living next door. So do average community members. Or just expand the sex offender registry and add convicted killers to that.
5. Require That the State Proactively Try to Notify Families of Victims Vs. Simply Checking an Online Website Few Know About
Ideally the state would be required to proactively try to notify victims’ family members before parole hearings. Right now, it appears the state officials simply check an online notification system that many victims’ families don’t know about. Some victims may not wish to participate, but it’s shocking that so many didn’t know this existed.
We think that the state needs to proactively try to notify victims and their families versus relying on an online system all weren’t told about and that didn’t even exist when the cases occurred in many instances. Current state law has DAs hand out notification cards during the case, but that leaves out juvenile family members and some of these cases are 30 or 40 years old. Require the state to inform juvenile family members of victims when they reach age 18 that they can be added to the victim notification system.
What happened with Erickson and other family members of murder victims is that, in some cases, they were small children when their mothers were murdered so no one told them the system existed. Then they became adults and still didn’t know it existed. So they were never told about the paroles because they had no clue the online notification system existed. The online notification system and cards sent to DAs is broken. We were shocked how many victim family members weren’t notified.
Current state law says “the department shall make a reasonable attempt to notify all of the following persons, if they can be found, in accordance with sub. (3) and after receiving a completed card under sub. (4)” and lists victims.
We think the “reasonable attempt” should be defined as a more proactive attempt than DOC simply checking the online notification system to see who is signed up in it (that’s how they are defining reasonable attempt now.)
6. Get Rid of ‘Special Action Parole Releases’
We also are not a fan of special action parole releases. These are done by Department of Corrections administrators for overcrowding reasons. Tony Evers’ DOC won’t give us any information on these; even with an open records request, they just won’t respond. Eliminate these.
Again, we applaud the legislators who are putting forth this very important bill.
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