Op-Ed by Pamela Everett: Parole denied for Juneal Pratt; review set for 6 months.

After serving 36 years for a crime he has steadfastly denied committing, Juneal Pratt appeared again Friday, July 29th before the Nebraska Parole Board.  He listened as psychologist Kirk Newring explained that a new parolee sits precariously atop a table, the surest support for which are things like family, friends, employment, housing, counseling and strong motivation.  The more legs the better.  Mr. Pratt knew the analogy well and had worked diligently for years giving of himself from behind prison walls to build a support network outside those walls.  He built his network for this very day – and beyond.

Nearly 40 supporters packed the hearing room.  Friends and family spoke, including his son who testified eloquently about how his father helped him right his own ship.  Frank Bailey of Omaha’s Bell House testified confidently how Mr. Pratt would have a transitional home with structure, support and accountability.  Tom Hightower of Omaha’s 1212 House transitional program revealed his deep friendship with Pratt, and said that he will be a daily touchstone for any of Mr. Pratt’s transitional needs.  Hightower and Pratt’s attorney both guaranteed him employment.  And the list went on.

Dr. Newring explained that Mr. Pratt, now 56 years old, was a low to moderate risk for re-offending and was an excellent candidate for parole.  Newring would even provide the Department of Correctional Services-required treatment program that Mr. Pratt had been unable to complete.  He’d attempted to take the program in Lincoln, but was brutally attacked there.  He narrowly escaped a fatal head injury but required surgery and extensive follow-up care.

Newring explained that before going into private practice, he designed and implemented the very programs DCS uses today, so his outpatient program is essentially identical to the DCS program but is even more beneficial administered in the community with non-inmate participants.

Mr. Pratt’s Nebraska Innocence Project attorney, Tracy Hightower-Henne, closed by presenting all the supporters as so many stout table legs, an unshakeable platform for Mr. Pratt’s new life.

It was hard to imagine a better candidate for parole or a better time to let Mr. Pratt start rebuilding his life and helping young men like his son turn their lives around.

But the Board voted 3-2 to deny parole and all the air went out of the room.

The Board explained that Mr. Pratt had not completed the DCS-mandated inpatient program and the DCS evaluator, who concluded as Newring had that Mr. Pratt was a low to moderate risk, had not recommended parole.
Granted, the Board’s decision is technically defensible.  No matter how unworkable, you must punch the DCS ticket before we’ll grant parole.

But Nebraska law (NRS 83-1,115) requires that the Board consider a variety of factors, not just internal recommendations.  The statute is designed for inmates like Mr. Pratt whose big picture is exceptional, but who may have a technical deficiency like the inpatient program.  The two Board members who voted for parole seemed to see that big picture, understanding that most parolees won’t have guaranteed housing and employment as Mr. Pratt will.  The remaining Board members focused on the single DCS requirement.

To the Board’s credit, rather than just denying parole and forcing Mr. Pratt to serve out 15 more years, they set the matter for review in five months so he can seek DCS approval for his outpatient program.

Mr. Pratt is the rare inmate who will use the next five months wisely and positively, and all those supporters at Friday’s hearing will still be there when the Board reviews his case again and when he is finally released.  But even five more months is too long.

When a deserving inmate is before our parole board with real support in place, we should seize those opportunities to release them when their chance for success is greatest.  If we can address program requirements in the community without sacrificing public safety, which is the case with Mr. Pratt, we should always do so.  It speeds transition and saves taxpayer dollars.

And in Mr. Pratt’s case, 36 years is enough – far too much for a man who has maintained his innocence despite the overwhelming incentive to lie and admit guilt to gain early release so many times before.  Not only is he still maintaining his innocence, he’s doing so from atop a rock solid table.

We must finally see the big picture – in his case and every case.