Board of Pardons and Paroles

By: Paul M. Lucko

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: April 16, 2019

The Board of Pardons and Paroles releases inmates from the prison system and recommends clemency decisions to the governor of Texas. Board structure, powers, and responsibilities have altered since the institution's inception. In 1929 the Texas legislature abolished the two-member Board of Pardon Advisors, which had existed since 1893, and established a three-person body to advise the governor on clemency matters. Board members, who served for six-year terms, received their positions through gubernatorial appointment subject to state senatorial confirmation. The governor designated one member as chairman, and the board selected another as supervisor of paroles. Stanhope Henry, James R. Hamilton, and J. O. Woodward served as the first members of a board that functioned in a purely advisory capacity; governors could grant clemency without board approval or advice.

Clemency consists of such measures as full pardons, conditional pardons, paroles, reprieves, furloughs, and the restoration of citizenship rights for those convicted of crimes. A full pardon essentially forgives offenders for their crimes and restores all of their civil rights. A conditional pardon releases offenders from prison and extends forgiveness as long as individuals comply with certain conditions, such as good behavior. Failure to adhere to those conditions voids the clemency and subjects the offender to reimprisonment. Parole, also a conditional release, permits certain prisoners freed at the discretion of designated officials to serve their sentences outside of the prison under state supervision. Parolees who fail to comply with supervision or commit new offenses usually return to prison after the board revokes their parole. A reprieve suspends the execution of a sentence for a temporary period; at various times in the board's existence the terms reprieve, furlough, and emergency parole have all referred to temporary releases from prison for a specified time, followed by a return at the end of the time period. On numerous occasions, however, governors have extended temporary releases and granted conditional pardons to those initially freed for only brief periods. Clemency has also included such actions as the remission of fines and bond forfeitures, the restoration of driver's licenses, and the commutation or reduction of sentences, including the change of a death penalty to life imprisonment.

Parole was regarded during the 1930s as the most desirable release method because it required convicts to meet criteria associated with length of time served, offense category, behavior while confined, and rehabilitation potential. Equally important, parole enabled authorities to supervise the return of prisoners into the free world by counseling them and monitoring their behavior. Texas law from 1930 until 1947 authorized parole consideration for first time prisoners serving the minimum terms of a sentence for an indeterminate or indefinite number of years and at least one-third of a sentence for a determinate or definite period of time. State laws also permitted prison officials to deduct a certain amount of time from the sentences of prisoners who displayed exemplary behavior. However, statutes required that all prisoners serve a minimum of one calendar year in order to attain parole eligibility. Despite the parole law, most prisoners completed their full sentences, though often with reduced time due to good behavior. At least one governor, Ross S. Sterling (1931–33), attempted to permit early releases only through parole and furlough without granting pardons. His successor, Miriam A. Ferguson (1933–35), however, released some prisoners through parole and furlough, but chiefly granted full and conditional pardons. Texas governors, state release laws, and the board received extensive criticism during the early 1930s. Investigation reports from criminal-justice specialists decried the lack of social-welfare expertise among board members, all of whom were attorneys trained to make parole decisions from a strictly judicial approach unrelated to prisoners' potential for coping outside of prison. Investigators also complained about low salaries, the absence of adequate clerical assistance, the lack of formal procedural rules, and the failure by board members to interview individual prisoners. Above all, parole experts criticized the state's failure to provide supervision for those released on parole. Although some parolees complied with board reporting requirements through correspondence, most prisoners apparently failed to maintain contact with members. Parole revocations thus only occurred when law enforcement officials notified the board of new offenses committed by parolees.

Governor James Allred (1935–39), who had campaigned against the excessive leniency and alleged corruption of the Ferguson clemency policies, took several steps to improve the performance of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. In 1935, to provide supervision for parolees and prisoners released through conditional pardons, Allred established a system of voluntary county parole boards. Composed of representatives of various civic organizations, voluntary boards helped conditionally released prisoners obtain employment and otherwise readjust to free society. Allred required the volunteers to submit reports to the Board of Pardons and Paroles and to inform the governor concerning any violations of release conditions. By 1938 nearly 1,100 volunteers sat on boards of one to ten members in 243 counties. Voluntary boards existed in 250 counties by 1946; Allred's volunteer system remained the only supervisory agency for Texas parolees until 1957. Allred also supported passage of a successful 1936 state constitutional amendment that reorganized the Board of Pardons and Paroles and reduced the governor's role in the clemency process. The restructured board began operations in 1937 and consisted of three members: one appointed by the governor, another by the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, and a third by the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Following state senatorial confirmation, board members held their positions for six-year overlapping terms. J. B. Keith, T. C. Andrews, and Bruce W. Bryant were the first members to serve under the new law. The board chose one member as its chairman, usually for a two-year term. Until 1947 one person retained an office in Huntsville, the headquarters of the Texas prison system, while the others worked in Austin. The new law required board recommendation for gubernatorial pardons, reprieves, commutations, and remissions of fine and forfeitures but allowed only the governor to revoke paroles and conditional pardons. The amendment gave the legislature authority to enact parole laws but did not expressly authorize parole powers for the governor. Allred, however, followed board recommendations and issued paroles subject to terms included in the 1930 eligibility law, granting conditional pardons in certain cases where prisoners might not meet parole criteria.

Governors who followed Allred issued conditional pardons rather than paroles. A Texas attorney general's opinion in 1946 determined that the 1936 amendment had not given governors the power to grant paroles; since the legislature had not provided for board issuance of paroles either, the attorney general decided that all past parole releases were in fact conditional pardons, and not subject to parole eligibility requirements. State officials nevertheless continued to refer to all persons released conditionally as parolees. The restructured board and Allred granted 650 conditional pardons and 50 paroles in 1937 while releasing another 195 prisoners through reprieves and furloughs. In 1942 and 1943 the board freed more than 2,000 individuals annually through conditional pardons and reprieves; in 1943 alone the county parole boards supervised nearly 3,500 parolees whom the board and governor had released over a period of years. Perhaps influenced by military and civilian personnel shortages associated with World War II, the number of prisoners freed by the board and the governor exceeded the number who completed their full sentences from 1942 through 1946.

Despite the initial political success and acclaim received by the voluntary county parole boards, the system attracted a growing number of critics who decried the shortcomings of volunteer officers. Observers cited the lack of professional training on the part of volunteers, inadequate time devoted to supervision, the failure of the state to provide adequate resources, and, in some instances, incompetent and inconsistent administration by a number of the volunteer boards. In 1947 the legislature passed a probation and parole law designed to establish a statewide system of professional officers to supervise parolees and probationers, certain offenders whom courts exempted from prison under suspended sentences contingent upon their good behavior. The legislature, however, refused to appropriate funds to implement the new law. This same law also altered parole eligibility by requiring prisoners to serve one-third of the maximum term of both determinate and indeterminate sentences; the measure established a fifteen-year ceiling as the maximum period necessary to attain parole consideration, regardless of sentence length. By 1950 the board was considering more than 10,000 prison cases and more than 2,000 other clemency cases; that year, members successfully recommended the issuance of more than 900 conditional pardons while supervising more than 2,400 parolees through the county volunteer boards. The following year Texas became the last state to join the Interstate Compact for the Supervision of Parolees and Probationers. This agreement allowed the board to supervise parolees and probationers who moved to Texas from other states and to arrange for the supervision of Texas parolees and probationers who desired to leave their state. During 1956 the board considered more than 13,000 prison cases and more than 2,000 other requests for executive clemency. The board granted more than 1,000 conditional pardons between August 31, 1955 and September 1, 1956.

Starting in September 1956, the board and the governor began issuing certificates of parole rather than conditional pardons. The board hoped the new documents would clarify the distinction between such terms as parole and conditional pardon and avoid confusion in other states under the Interstate Parole Compact. As the state's prisoner population expanded during the 1950s, prison officials urged the legislature to fund parole supervisors as a means for reducing overcrowding; prison director Oscar Byron Ellis suggested that expert supervision would permit the safe release of large numbers of prisoners. In 1957, the legislature, persuaded by the urgings of Ellis and other criminal justice observers, enacted a new probation and parole law that funded the hiring of paid parole supervisors. Texas was one of the last three states to adopt a professional parole system. The law separated probation and parole functions and required counties to supervise probationers. Vincent O'Leary, former chief of paroles and probations for the state of Washington, became director of the Texas system and hired the first seventeen officers in December 1957; by the end of August 1958 the board had employed the remaining twenty-three officers. Voluntary county boards remained to supervise parolees in remote areas of the state. The forty parole officers and their five supervisors, along with the voluntary boards, were overseeing almost 4,000 cases by 1960; the legislature authorized an additional thirty officers in 1961, when for the first time since 1946 the number of parolees almost equaled those who completed their full sentences.

The 1957 probation and parole law also exempted some prisoners from the 1947 rule that required them to serve a third of their sentence before attaining parole eligibility. According to the new, somewhat confusing, provisions, prisoners who had served minimum terms of indeterminate sentences, where the maximum number of years was less than four times as great as the minimum, could receive parole consideration. Also, in those instances where the maximum sentence exceeded the minimum terms by four times, prisoners could attain parole after serving one-fourth of the maximum sentence periods. In 1965 the legislature again revised eligibility laws, effective January 1,1966, by providing that all prisoners need only serve one-fourth rather than one-third of their sentences in order to achieve parole consideration. In 1967, however, the legislature returned parole eligibility to the one-third requirement that had existed prior to the 1965 law and the 1957 modifications. In 1966 the board considered more than 28,000 prison cases and more than 2,000 other clemency cases; the governor approved more than 2,000 board recommendations; parole officers supervised approximately 2,600 Texas parolees and more than 600 parolees from other states, but only 38 percent of Texas prisoners received their releases through parole that year. Under the Interstate Compact, the board also supervised 400 out-of-state probationers through voluntary county parole officers and county probation offices. Board activity increased throughout the 1960s. By 1970 the board was considering more than 23,000 prison cases and paroling more than 2,000 inmates; another 3,000 prisoners completed their sentences without parole or conditional release.

During the 1970s the legislature enacted a number of measures designed to help the board deal with an increasing volume of activity. A 1975 act provided for the appointment of six parole commissioners to assist the board with prison cases. The measure authorized the governor, the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, and the presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals each to appoint, with senatorial confirmation, two commissioners for six-year terms. Parole commissioners did not consider nonprison clemency cases, nor did the new law involve them in administrative matters. Board members and parole commissioners sat together in three-member panels to grant, deny, and revoke paroles. The law mandated that three commissioners live near Huntsville, where they could interview prisoners eligible for parole. The legislature authorized an additional three commissioners during 1982. The board began contracting for halfway houses to serve certain released prisoners in 1976. The following year, the legislature tightened parole eligibility requirements for certain offenses. Those convicted of aggravated sexual assault, aggravated robbery, aggravated kidnapping, or any felony involving the use or exhibition of a deadly weapon, were to serve at least one-third (the measure required a minimum of at least two years and a twenty-year maximum) of their sentence in calendar time, irrespective of any possible reduction of time for good behavior. Also in 1977 the legislature expanded the activities of parole officers. All prisoners convicted after August 29, 1977, who did not make parole but instead completed their sentences due to reduced time for good behavior, would receive mandatory supervision from parole officers during the time remaining on their original sentences.

Federal court orders against overcrowding and a reluctance to construct new penal facilities, despite an increasing prisoner population, greatly expanded board activity in the 1980s. By 1980 the agency employed more than 230 parole officers, although state laws permitted the board to use volunteers to supplement the professional staff. Two years later the board was reviewing more than 24,000 cases and successfully recommending the parole of more than 7,000 prisoners; the board also contracted for thirty-seven halfway houses in 1982 and assumed responsibility for more than 4500 prisoners through mandatory supervision. In 1983 Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment that significantly altered the board's structure and powers. The amendment removed the governor from the parole process, although the governor retained clemency powers for nonprison cases and could grant full and conditional pardons, reprieves, commutations of sentences and fines, remissions of bond forfeitures, and the restoration of civil rights and driving privileges. A related statute authorized the board to grant and revoke paroles without gubernatorial approval and increased the board to six members, all appointed by the governor subject to senatorial confirmation; the governor named the chairman and vice chairman, while the board received authorization to hire nine parole commissioners. In 1984 the board implemented specialized caseloads to enable officers to oversee certain categories of released prisoners requiring intensive supervision, such as sex offenders, intellectually disabled persons, and potential repeat offenders. By the following year the board was supervising more than 35,000 former prisoners statewide; for the first time following enaction of the 1977 law, the number of individuals under mandatory supervision exceeded those released through parole. Parole officers in six counties began electronic monitoring of some high-risk offenders in 1987. The board and parole commissioners considered more than 49,000 cases, paroled more than 25,000 prisoners, and released 7,000 individuals through mandatory supervision in 1988. More than 1,500 agency employees, including about 700 parole officers, supervised approximately 52,000 released prisoners in the state's 254 counties. More than 9,500 individuals resided in halfway houses. In 1989, to alleviate overcrowding in state jails, the board contracted with a private security company for the establishment of a parole-violator facility in San Antonio.

The legislature significantly reorganized state criminal-justice institutions in 1989 by merging the prison system, the Adult Probation Department, and the administrative and parole-supervision duties of the Board of Pardons and Paroles into a new Texas Department of Criminal Justice, effective in 1990. However, a separate Board of Pardons and Paroles remained to consider prison releases and to revoke parole and mandatory supervision violators. The new law abolished the parole commissioners, increased the number of board members to eighteen gubernatorial appointees serving six-year terms, gave the governor authority to appoint the board chairman, and removed the board from Austin, placing members at five different locations in close proximity to various state prison facilities. The board continued to make gubernatorial clemency recommendations for reprieves, commutations, and restoration of civil rights. In 1990 the board considered more than 71,000 prison cases and released more than 42,000 prisoners to the Parole Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Numerous changes in parole and release laws occurred in 1987. Legislation adopted that year relaxed parole eligibility by requiring persons convicted for offenses on or after September 1 of that year to serve one-fourth of their sentences rather than the one-third required by the previous law. Persons convicted of "capital" murder, aggravated offenses, and those involving the use or display of a deadly weapon were to serve the one-fourth minimum, but not more than fifteen years of their sentence in calendar time in order to qualify for parole consideration. Another 1987 act prohibited release under mandatory supervision for those guilty of aggravated offenses, capital murder, use of a deadly weapon, deadly assault on law enforcement or corrections officers, injury to a child or elderly person, arson, or certain categories of robbery and burglary.

Following publicity surrounding the release of infamous criminals during the late 1980s, the legislature tightened parole eligibility standards. A 1991 law mandated that persons sentenced to life for "capital" murder serve a minimum of thirty-five years before they could receive parole consideration; two years later, the legislature raised the minimum period to forty years. Also in 1993 the legislature replaced earlier parole laws for violent offenders with measures that raised eligibility requirements to the highest levels in the state's history. Those convicted of aggravated offenses, including acts involving the use of deadly weapons, were to serve the shorter time equal to one-half of the maximum sentence (thirty years). Another 1993 law required a two-thirds vote from the entire Board of Pardons and Paroles, rather than a majority vote from a three-person panel, before prisoners serving time for "capital" murder could receive parole.

Although the board has sometimes been criticized for slow release when prisons were overcrowded, it has more often been the object of public ire for releasing parolees who subsequently committed heinous crimes. Major controversies have especially ensued in instances where parolees have paid individuals to assist their release by the board. The influence exerted by consultants, legislators, or others with close ties to board members and governors has precipitated accusations of favoritism, injustice, and corruption from prisoners, state officials, the media, and private citizens. Recognizing the potential for conflicts of interest, Governor Allred during 1937 asked the legislature to prohibit its members from practicing before the board, but the state's lawmakers denied his request. A former board chairman who served during the 1950s remembered "extreme pressure from some state senators" who would "threaten to cut our salary to $1 a year if we didn't go along with them on paroles." In 1947 a Texas Senate committee report castigated the board for "gross abuse of discretion" in relation to numerous clemency recommendations. The committee determined that the board had irresponsibly suggested gubernatorial clemency for many repeat offenders and prisoners who displayed poor behavior, such as attempting to escape. Noting inconsistent decisions, the committee also faulted the board for disregarding formal procedures and for the close relationship that existed between one board member and "professional clemency seekers." Irrespective of sentence lengths or the nature of their crimes, prisoners able to pay parole consultants often received favorable treatment from board members. Although the committee criticized Governor Coke R. Stevenson's (1941–47) acceptance of board recommendations without proper study, the report called for the board's abolition and suggested that the governor's office handle all future clemency policies. The legislature rejected the proposal but in 1947 adopted a law that required individuals testifying before the board to file signed affidavits stating whether or not they had received a fee for their services. The board, however, did not implement the affidavit requirements until 1953.

Prisoners seeking release continued to hire consultants to expedite their cases before the board. As during the 1940s, publicity surrounding the release of notorious criminals who had retained paid parole representatives and then committed serious crimes prompted public outrage in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Legislative investigators in 1989 and 1992 discovered that certain parole consultants solicited prisoners and their families and contacted board members and employees to request "special" reviews as well as favorable release and revocation decisions. The investigators located other instances in which consultants exploited inmates with exorbitant and often unrefundable fees, though they provided few actual services. Some former board members and agency employees, including a former chairman, had even acted as parole consultants after terminating their board employment. Though the legislature did not specifically enact measures in 1989 to regulate parole consultants, it did write a general state ethics law that prohibited former board members and regulatory-agency employees for two years from practicing before the agency that had employed them. As controversies concerning parole consultants and poor parole decisions intensified, however, the legislature adopted a number of new laws in 1993 that strictly regulated parole consulting for the first time in the board's history. The prohibition against practice by board members and agency employees extended to ten years after leaving the board or terminating employment. Only attorneys licensed in Texas could represent prisoners for compensation; representatives were required to reveal any business associations with current and former board members and employees. On August 10, 1994, a federal court issued a five year probated perjury sentence to former board chairman James Granberry. Granberry had cast a favorable vote that paroled former death row inmate Kenneth McDuff, whom law enforcement officials later suspected of killing as many as nine women after his release. After resigning from the board in 1991, Granberry had worked as a parole consultant, representing individual prisoners before the board he had formerly chaired. He admitted that he had given false testimony to a federal magistrate about the number of prisoners he had represented after leaving the board. Granberry's punishment consisted of an order to perform 150 hours of community service and a requirement that he reside for six months in a halfway house.

Between 1990 and 1994, as the state embarked upon a massive prison-expansion program, the board sharply curtailed parole releases; whereas the board had approved 79 percent of all parole cases in 1990, it approved only 39 percent in 1993. A special report prepared by the Texas comptroller of public accounts in 1994 characterized parole as "the least understood and least popular aspect of the criminal justice system" and urged the legislature to transfer parole supervision from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to community supervision and corrections departments throughout the state. Such a proposal suggested a system that at least partly resembled the decentralized county parole board supervision that had existed prior to the employment of paid parole supervisors beginning in 1957.

James Allred Papers, Special Collections, University of Houston. Gary Cartwright, "Free to Kill," Texas Monthly, August 1992. Price Daniel Papers, Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center, Liberty, Texas. Stuart A. MacCorkle, "Pardoning Power in Texas," Southwestern Social Science Quarterly 15 (December 1934). The Prison Labor Problem in Texas (Washington: Prison Industries Reorganization Administration, 1937). Jack Ross, Parole and Executive Clemency in Texas (Austin: Board of Pardons and Paroles, 1966). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Paul M. Lucko, “Board of Pardons and Paroles,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 29, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

April 16, 2019