A lot of the time I spend preparing clients for their parole hearings goes to a basic issue – getting them to the point where they believe they can tell the truth and not get nailed for it. Now, there are situations where clients are still struggling with the truth and that’s a separate issue. There are also situations where clients are still outright maintaining their innocence, and I can even work with that although it’s admittedly complicated. Right now, however, I’m just talking about the very common situation where a client can tell me, in a coherent way, what really happened and how they ended up in jail. But their very next questions is “but how do I tell it differently to the Parole Board?”
Of all the many issues that can derail a parole application, this problem frustrates me the most because it’s so avoidable, and yet I also know where it comes from. My clients often spend years defending themselves in the criminal process before they get to the point of being sentenced and incarcerated. In all that time, they’ve been told to keep their mouths shut, to be careful about what they say to anyone about anything, and to let their lawyer do almost all of the talking. That’s very good advice when you’re still just accused of a crime and you’re trying to defend yourself. I’d give the same advice wearing my other hat, as a defence lawyer. But when you get to the point of applying for parole those learned habits are all wrong.
I wish I could promise my clients that when they tell the truth and explain why they are in jail and they’re honest about the decisions that led them there they will immediately be believed. I can’t promise that, because I’ve certainly been in hearings where I know my client is doing everything he can to be open and sincere, and the Board just insists on not believing him anyway. But one thing I know for sure is that trying to duck around the truth and invent clever lies to try to make a crime and all the events surrounding it somehow sound better never works. You absolutely cannot run a parole hearing the way you run a trial – by saying as little as possible and demanding the benefit of the doubt on everything that can’t be proved against you. The Board simply won’t give you the benefit of the doubt and they have no obligation to.
The way I explain it, down to the basics, is really this simple. The Parole Board’s job is to figure out what happened, why it happened, and decide if they are sufficiently confident it won’t happen again that they can release the guy in front of them. That last part is tricky – the part where we’re trying to convince the Board there is not “undue risk” if the guy is released. But before we even get there, the Board still needs to know what happened and why it happened. If the Board is left not understanding even that much…well, if you don’t know why something happened the first time, how could you ever have confidence it won’t happen again? So explaining things properly is simply a prerequisite to even getting that far.
Simply put, there’s one hell of a lot more to a good parole hearing than “tell the truth.” But that’s absolutely the most important starting point. And it’s amazing, but completely understandable, how hard it is to get some clients even to that starting point.