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Our Opinion: Another backwards step for Corrections

Our Opinion: Another backwards step for Corrections

News Tribune editorial

June 18th, 2017 by News Tribune in Opinion

It was disheartening to hear a Missouri parole board member and a Corrections department employee were making a farce out of parole hearings.

The revelation comes at a time when the department is trying to heal from a credibility crisis that came to light late last year. An investigation by a Kansas City weekly newspaper found a culture of sexual harassment, racial discrimination and harassment by co-workers — and retaliation by supervisors for speaking out.

It examined more than 60 lawsuits against the department and also found the state spent more than $7.5 million on settlements and judgments between 2012 and 2016, related to the allegations.

Anne Precythe, the new department director, has said addressing the claims of harassment is a top priority.

Now this.

The Missouri Department of Corrections said Donald Ruzicka, a Missouri parole board member who reportedly admits concocting a word game played during questioning in parole hearings, has resigned.

Ruzicka, a Republican, is a former state representative from Mount Vernon. He and the employee, who was not named, played the game on occasions in hearings throughout summer 2016, the report says.

The Associated Press reported a Department of Corrections inspector general's report said Ruzicka and an employee played a game during parole hearings in which they earned points for incorporating song titles and unusual words — such as "manatee" and "hootenanny" — into their questioning.

The report said the officials, who occasionally dressed alike, awarded themselves an extra point if they could get the inmates also to say the words.

Board Chairman Kenny Jones — R-California, who is a former sheriff and former state representative — said in a statement Monday "members of the board must be held to a higher standard."

We wholeheartedly agree. For inmates, parole hearings are their lives — they're the difference between continued incarceration or freedom. For communities, parole hearings determine whether inmates have served their debt and are fit to be integrated back into society.

In a Thursday column, Washington Post syndicated columnist George Will made the point graduates from New York State's Sing Sing prison's Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison program have a 1 percent recidivism rate. But overall, prisons are failing to accomplish lasting correction, he said, as more than half of released prisoners are arrested again in the first year.

Parole hearings are another important component to such lasting correction. We hope this was an isolated incident and not a continuation of the problematic culture that we hoped was in the past.