LISTEN: The worst prison sentences — life without parole or even death — are relatively rare. For everyone else, there is the hope of parole. But critics of Georgia’s correction system say parole doesn’t happen as often as it could or should. GPB's Grant Blankenship reports.

Andrea Guice, right, talks to Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole spokesperson Steve Hayes after the board's September meeting. Guice's brother has served 8 years in prison after his first possible parole date.

Andrea Guice (right) talks to Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole spokesperson Steve Hayes after the board's September meeting. Guice's brother has served 8 years in prison past his first possible parole date.

Credit: Grant Blankenship / GPB News

A few stories above the MARTA station and the food court across the street from the Georgia Capitol, hundreds of decisions are made every year about the future of people’s lives. 

That’s where the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole meets. The September meeting was packed with people who were anxious to be heard, but who didn’t get to speak.

This meeting was about office business — no parole cases were heard, so much of the meeting was devoted to greeting new employees or congratulating old ones. There were only two brief slots for public comment. So after the meeting, a few of the women who helped fill the boardroom on behalf of their loved ones stuck around and talked to board chair Terry Barnard.

“It seems like your major concern is maybe prison conditions," Barnard said to the group. "I didn't hear as much about parole today as I did conditions.”

The group did in fact have a question about parole. 

“If you're going to say you're going to keep setting people off due to the crime, why even offer them parole?” prison reform activist Roxanne Thompson asked. “Just give everybody life.”

Most people who go to Georgia prisons go with some hope they will leave, possibly before their sentence is over. That’s because the worst sentences — life without parole or even death — are relatively rare. 

For everyone else, there is the hope of parole. But critics of Georgia’s corrections system say parole doesn’t happen as often as it could or should. 

Like Roxanne Thompson, they think too many people have their parole “set off.”

“When you put somebody off, that means that they're up for parole,” Thompson explained. “And they come in before the parole board and the board says, ‘Due to the nature of your crime, you haven't served enough time.’”

There is a formula in Georgia that regulates when someone can first be considered for parole. The formula ranges from as little as 20% of a sentence served for non-violent crimes such as drug trafficking to almost the entirety of more serious sentences for things like manslaughter or murder. 

Deviating from the formula is not uncommon. 

About half the time someone in Georgia is up for parole in Georgia, they are told "no." The letter from the board will sometimes cite “institutional conduct,” but often includes exactly the line Thompson described: Due to the severity of your crime.

“They don't care about how the inmate changed, how many certificates or how many trades he got under his belt,” Charles Brown said. 

Brown has friends who are incarcerated. Many of them participate in job training or educational programs which earn them Performance Incentive Credit, or PIC points. 

“So you need PIC points to go in your profile for parole,” Brown said. 

The Georgia Department of Corrections explains PIC points as a way for inmates to earn time off of their sentences. But Brown said in his experience, even those who try and rack up the PIC points see their paroles set off with little explanation why their efforts were not enough, or how to ask the follow up question about what they should do going forward. 

“The question that we want to know: How does the appeal process work?” Brown asked. 

That’s what Andrea Guice wants to know, too. 

 Guice’s brother is serving his sentence in the Muscogee County Prison. It’s one of the state’s 21work prisons that sometimes provide cheap or even unpaid labor to communities for things like picking up the garbage. 

Muscogee County says it saves some $10 million every year this way. 

“And he's sentenced for nonviolent drug charges,” Guice said. “He was due for parole like a few years before. Actually the fifth year he was supposed to be due for parole.”

That timeline was in line with the state parole formula.

“And he's been in for about 13 years now,” Guice said. “So we're trying to see exactly when his parole is. Who do we need to talk to and how can we, you know, get together with the system to make it better for him?

A parole board staffer heard Guice by the elevators and offered the email address for the board ombudsman to whom he said all the family’s questions should be addressed. Her mother quickly said it was an address they already had.  

Guice’s brother began serving time at 27. Without parole, he’ll max out his sentence when he’s 52. 

After the meeting there was a small rally outside the office building housing the parole board, within sight of the Georgia State Capitol’s gold dome. 

Among the speakers was Josh McLaurin, a Democrat representing House District 51 in the General Assembly. McLaurin routinely attends  parole board meetings.

“So I have characterized — a lot of people characterize — the parole board as a safety valve,” McLaurin said. 

Georgia paroles just under a fifth of its prison population every year and yet the prison population remains relatively stable. 

Stable and overcrowded.

For instance, before it was closed down earlier this year, Georgia State Prison in Reidsville was said to house almost twice as many people than for which it was designed.  

Meanwhile, the facilities are radically understaffed. That disparity may be part of what’s fueling the Georgia corrections homicide rate which has in recent years been three times the city of Atlanta’s. 

That’s why McLaurin sees parole as a safety valve. 

“When you remove one or two or five or 10 people from those settings, that's one, two, five, 10 people fewer that the currently understaffed officers have to supervise,” he said. 

McLaurin wants more parole, but he’s not arguing to throw open the prison doors. 

“It's picking people in an evidence-based way who we think pose less of a threat to public safety if they're allowed to be outside the facility than if they're inside.”

McLaurin believes that won’t make our communities more dangerous, and as they enter their second year of investigation by the federal Department of Justice, McLaurin believes more parole could make Georgia prisons more humane.