Saddled with vacancies, parole board says it’s struggling to keep up with growing backlog

Parole board chairman Ted Johnson appears before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Image source: PA Senate GOP.

Pennsylvania’s parole board is scrambling to keep up with a backlog of cases while it waits for Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled state Senate to appoint new members, its chairman told a powerful Senate committee Wednesday.

The nine-member board, which can grant inmates conditional release from state prisons, has been operating with three vacancies since December, board chairman Ted Johnson told the Senate Appropriations Committee during the agency’s annual budget hearing.

While the six remaining members can still review and vote on cases, they’re working much slower than they would at full complement, Johnson said.

Johnson said the slowdown is partially due to four vacancies in the board’s Office of Hearing Examiners, which conducts crucial parole interviews and hearings in correctional facilities across the state.

“We are falling way behind in our decisions,” Johnson told committee members, who will have a significant say on the parole board’s $12 million budget request for the fiscal year starting July 1. “We’re just pushing more and more [cases] into the next month.”

Johnson said the board was unable to see 112 prisoners who were up for parole review in January. That backlog grew to 182 cases in February, and Johnson predicts it will reach 224 cases by March.

Johnson said the parole board typically hears 18,000 cases annually — a rate he doesn’t expect to match this year.

The state prison system has seen its inmate population fall in recent years as the legislature enacts new laws designed to keep low-level offenders out of prison.

The setback on the parole board has slightly slowed the rate at which prisoners are leaving the state correctional system, and will have a more significant “population impact” in March, corrections secretary John Wetzel told the Capital-Star.

Johnson said it could be months before the board resumes its normal operations, given the time it takes for new members to acclimate to their powerful posts.

“Even if you give us new board members today… it’s probably going to take us close to a year to catch up,” Johnson said.

The state parole board came under fire last year after five Pennsylvania parolees were implicated in separate murders over the span of 10 days.

An internal review by the Department of Corrections found that the board did not err in its decisions to release the men. 

But the union representing state corrections officers called for the board to slow down its operations while an independent expert reviewed its decisions.

Johnson denied that the high-profile incidents led parole board members to resign.  

He told the Capital-Star that the three members who left last year all served the entirety of their appointed terms. Only one declined to retain her seat for a 90-day holdover period while waiting for her replacement to be named, he said.

Parole board appointees must be nominated by Wolf and confirmed by a two-thirds majority of the state Senate. 

They must also have at least six years of experience working in probation, parole or social work, according to the parole board website.

Johnson told senators on Wednesday that he had “no idea” what was holding up the new appointees. 

Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, deferred comment on the nominations to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, head of the Republican caucus. 

Scarnati’s office did not return a request for comment Wednesday. 

Wolf’s spokesman J.J. Abbott said criminal justice reform “remains a top priority” for Wolf, who is discussing nominees with Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate.