For Ohioans Who Committed Crimes Before July 1996, Chance Of Parole Is Slim
Charles Crawford is 70 years old. In 1988 he was sentenced to a prison term of 12 to 80 years.
“They’re not going to let me go. I don’t feel that they are,” said Crawford, on the phone from Mansfield Correctional Institution.
Sindrick Tucker is 59. Back in 1984 he was sentenced to 28 to 75 years.
“I done been in front of them five or six times,” Tucker said, referring to the Ohio Parole Board. “Every time they ask me to do something, I do it. But then when I go up to see them, they come up with another excuse.”
David Copeland is 68 years old. He received a sentence of 15 to 230 years in 1979 and has been in front of the parole board 10 times.
“And you know, with each passing year, or even or I should say with each passing month or each even each passing week or each passing day, you have to count your blessings that you even wake up to another day in this environment,” Copeland said.
Everyone incarcerated in Ohio’s prisons can be classified in one of two groups – those who are commonly referred to as “old law inmates” and those known as “new law inmates.” Crawford, Tucker and Copeland are all “old law.”
The dividing line is July 1, 1996. That’s when Ohio changed the parole board system.
“Old law inmates” committed their crimes before Senate Bill 2 went into effect. Under this Truth in Sentencing Act, inmates are sentenced to a specific number of years. Judges decide when to grant parole. Only those who receive a life sentence go in front of the parole board.
“Life with a possibility of parole at 15 years, 20 years. Possibility,” said Ohio Parole Board Chair Alicia Handwerk, during a virtual question and answer session organized by the board earlier this year. “And the possibility is there, it’s just all the factors have to come into alignment.”
In 2020, the parole board made decisions on 953 people up for parole, 151 were granted release. There’s no information on how many of those were “old law inmates” or any details on who received parole.
There have been several lawsuits challenging the parole board’s definition of “possibility” of parole. They’ve responded by increasing transparency and adding diversity to the board. They’ve adopted a more formal decision-making process and shortened the time between hearings for some potential parolees.
But like the board’s handbook says: “Parole in Ohio is subject to the absolute discretion of the board.”
Sometimes the use of that discretion can be puzzling to an outsider.
“This last time I went back, I had the deputy warden here in this institution, case managers, the chaplains and several other people write letters on my behalf, people I be around every day,” said James Johnson, who’s been incarcerated since 1991, when he was 23 years old.
At his last parole board hearing earlier this year, Johnson was told he didn’t have enough family support on the outside.
David Lindquist met Johnson in 2016. He taught Johnson and dozens of other incarcerated people at Southeast Correctional Institution about finding a job and living on the outside. They were chosen for the class because prison officials considered them likely to be released soon.
Lindquist and Johnson kept in touch and he offered to write a letter in support of Johnson’s release, but Johnson never took him up on it.
“Literally, he thought he was getting out then,” Lindquist said. “There was no question. He was 100% convinced he was getting out.”
When that didn’t happen, according to Lindquist, Johnson became heartbroken.
Johnson wasn’t the only person from his classes who seemed headed for release only to be denied by the parole board.
“I talked to some of the guards,” Lindquist said, “and they said, ‘These guys are the best-of-the-best. These are the best inmates in the facility,’ Sometimes they would even tell me that, ‘Hey, it doesn't seem fair sometimes.’”
Lindquist now sees what happens at the parole board as a crap shoot.
“And I know they're criminals. I get it. But sometimes I think they've taken the humanity out. They've forgotten they're human beings,” said Lindquist.
A spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections said in a written statement, “While public safety is the ultimate goal, consideration is always given to activities which help improve the chances of a successful reentry after release.”
James Johnson’s next shot at parole is in 2026. Lindquist put him in touch with a church that runs a halfway house in Southern Ohio. He’s given Lindquist power of attorney, to try and open a bank account and help save for Johnson’s first month’s rent.