The way Americans conduct business has certainly changed due to COVID-19 concerns.

The criminal justice system has had to undergo changes to accommodate necessary safety precautions to protect against the spread of the virus. The expanded use of technology has played a significant role in this effort. For example, this year the Louisiana Legislature passed HB77 to allow probation and parole officers to use video technology to communicate with people on supervision. This policy makes sense during COVID-19 and for a post COVID-19 world too. Another COVID-19 administrative change has allowed participants, including witnesses, to participate in parole board hearings via video. Prior to COVID-19, only the offender could participate in a hearing via video. Board members, victims, family members, district attorneys, and others had to travel to Baton Rouge to appear in-person, or settle for participation via telephone. Witnesses in a pardon or parole hearing can include the victim, the victim’s family member, the district attorney, law enforcement, and the offender.

Louisiana State Representative Joe Marino, a member of the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee, has introduced House Bill 12 to codify the allowance of video participation for witnesses in pardon and parole hearings. This reform is important since the victim’s voice must be heard throughout the criminal justice process.

Hopefully, HB 12 will expand victims’ participation in the process. Since the expanded use of video participation due to COVID-19, witness participation at these hearings has increased by 38 percent for both victims and offender witnesses. While some participants have the means and the time to participate in person, not everyone has this capability, or can do so safely. Victims who participate via video can do so from the comfort of their home, or at their district attorney’s office. However, the proposed bill would continue to allow for witnesses to participate in-person.

As a former probation and parole officer, I have prepared many pre-parole investigation reports that function to inform parole decisions. These reports include statements from law enforcement, district attorneys, victims, family members of victims, and family members of the offender. I worked in a rural area, and most family members of offenders as well as the victims, were unable to travel to attend hearings in person. I have seen firsthand how valuable a supportive family is to the success of a person on parole. Increased participation by family members would give parole board members a better understanding of the family member’s commitment, or lack thereof, to the success of the prospective parolee. This is essential information needed to make an informed decision whether to grant a person parole.

The parole board is charged with ensuring public safety and the rights of victims. Increased participation leads to more informed parole decisions. The reforms in House Bill 12 will allow for more participation and input at the hearings which will provide the board a better understanding of the person seeking parole. Moreover, these reforms serve to modernize the pardon and parole hearing process without compromising public safety, victims’ voices, or the ability for a person to seek a fair pardon or parole board hearing.