ATLANTA -- A bill that seeks to shed more light on one of the state’s most secretive agencies is – perhaps not surprisingly – getting a lot of resistance from that agency. It’s the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, whose deliberations to parole inmates or commute death sentences are considered state secrets.
The state parole board operates under very little scrutiny from the public or the news media. But the parole board contends that it does its job efficiently – and considers all the public input it needs when making decisions.
When the state Pardons and Parole Board considered commuting the death sentence of Kelly Gissendaner in 2015, the meeting closed to the public moments after the meeting convened. The board upheld the convicted killer’s execution, but the board’s reasoning remains a state secret.
Meg Heap, the District Attorney of Chatham County, says the board’s secrecy extends to prosecutors. She supports a bill that would subject many of the records of the Board of Pardons and Paroles to the state Open Records Act.
Heap says the board is out of step with the rest of the justice system. "It’s deemed a state secret. And we can’t have information to that and I’m not sure why. I don’t understand, because every other part of the criminal justice system is transparent, it is open. Why do we stop it (at Pardons and Paroles)?"
"We adhere to best practices of transparency," said Chris Barnard, chairman of the Board, at a House committee hearing this week.
Barnard says the website of the Board of Pardons and Paroles is full of transparent content – and that its process works well just the way it is.
"We think that the process that we have now is efficient and very effective," said Steve Hayes, a board spokesman. "And if (prosecutors or victims) have a protest, that protest is considered."
The legislature exempts itself from the Open Records Act. The bill's prospects are unclear.