SPRING, Texas – It’s a problem that cost Texas taxpayers nearly $200,000 to fix.
But the KHOU 11 News I-Team discovered that the damage caused by a Texas Department of Criminal Justice mistake may run even deeper for thousands of families.
“He’s the other half of me,” explained Faith Smith. “He’s my soul mate.”
But Smith’s relationship with her husband, Kris, is no typical love story.
Theirs is a love-affair centered around telephone calls and weekly visits.
That’s because Kris Smith is serving a 20 year prison sentence for robbery.
Faith Smith says her husband has taken responsibility for his actions, and doesn’t claim to be an innocent man.
For the last year and a half, Smith has been assigned to a “trusty” camp and allowed to work away from the prison.
So when her husband came up for parole review last fall, Faith Smith was hopeful.
She spent months arranging to get letters of support from friends, family members, and even a potential employer for Kris.
But last fall, Smith learned her husband’s parole was denied.
Even worse, there are now serious questions as to whether anything she sent actually made it to parole voters.
“I’m very disappointed,” explained Smith. “That’s my life they’re playing with.”
The 11 News I-Team discovered her husband’s denial could be the result of a giant mix-up by TDCJ.
“We believe about 86,000 files (were affected),” explained TDCJ Spokesman Jason Clark.
“Different inmates, somewhere in the correctional system?” The I-Team asked Clark.
“Yes,” he responded.
Those 86,000 files are parole files that may not have included support letters urging voters to approve an inmate’s release.
As the I-Team first reported, for months those letters were part of “general correspondence” that was electronically stored, but not put into inmates’ parole files.
Instead, those documents were shredded as part of a policy change inside TDCJ.
But Clark admits no one from TDCJ ever told the Board of Pardons and Paroles about the policy change.
So for months parole voters had no idea they were potentially reviewing incomplete files when deciding cases.
“Is it possible people are sitting in prison right now who legitimately would have had a chance to be paroled had this information been in there?” the I-Team asked Clark.
“You know, how this general correspondence would have influenced the parole decision, I can't speculate,” Clark said. “Those decisions come down to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.”
So the I-Team took the question to the parole board.
A spokesman for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles said the Board doesn’t know how many reviews relied on an incomplete file and admitted that a year after the Board learned of the mistake, it had not initiated any process to re-examine any cases to see if they were affected.
However, that spokesman, Harry Battson, wrote in a statement that the Board, “closely monitored approval rates since December 2012 and identified no discernible differences with previous months.”
Battson declined to answer our questions on camera, so the I-Team tracked down Board Chairwoman Rissie Owens.
But when the I-Team asked her why files were not re-reviewed after the parole board realized there was a problem, Owens said nothing.
She also refused to answer when the I-Team asked her whether voters should have all the information in front of them before making a parole decision.
But Terri Burke, Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas did have something to say.
“This is stunning,” said Burke after the I-Team told her about the mistake. “Just stunning to me. They (the parole board) need to correct this. If all the materials weren’t there in someone’s file, then they didn’t get a fair parole review.”
Meanwhile, as Faith Smith counts down the days until her husband’s next shot at parole in 2014, she can’t help but wonder if the state’s mistake cost Kris and thousands of others, a chance at freedom.
“Even if it wasn't me or my husband, there are families out there that are going through the same thing that I go through,” said Smith. “For those files and those packets to not end up so they could see them and know the information that’s within them, there’s no way they can stand by any of their decisions,”
Parole files are confidential under Texas law and so the I-Team could not review them and determine how many were missing paperwork during a parole hearing.
Aside from inmates and their families, the I-Team discovered there’s another potential impact on taxpayers.
That’s because TDCJ spends about $50 a day to keep inmates in prison.
The Department says the cost of supervising an offender on parole is less than $4 a day.