- Associated Press - Sunday, August 17, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Olivia Craven is used to being scorned.

After 30 years of overseeing which inmates get pardoned or paroled, she’s well acquainted with making the kinds of decisions that always leave someone unhappy. Serving as the executive director of the Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole has rarely been a low-stress affair, even on the days when she wasn’t directly weighing the fate of someone’s future.

So, as she starts retirement this week, her plans are simple.

“I’m going to sit on the couch and do nothing but watch TV for a month,” she said. “When I’ve had enough of TV and enough of being bored, then I’m going to find something else to do.”

Craven’s first week on the Idaho Parole and Pardons Commission was a doozy.

It was July 1984, back when the commission had the full authority to grant pardons and to commute sentences into shorter terms. There were only about 1,000 inmates in the state - compared to about 8,000 now - and one of them was standing before the commission on a commutation hearing, seeking a shorter sentence.

“The offender had killed a confidential informant. He was 18 when he did it,” Craven recalls. “They commuted his sentence from life to 22 years, and I thought, ‘How interesting that they can do that.’”

Idaho lawmakers and most of the general public had a different reaction.

“Wow. We were in trouble with the Legislature, we were in trouble with everyone in the world,” Craven said. “It took two years, but they changed the state Constitution to change our pardon and commutation authority.”

The change gave the governor final say over seven crimes: Murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape, kidnapping, lewd and lascivious conduct with a minor child and manufacture or delivery of controlled substances.

“Though again, every decision you make you have someone’s life in your hands. So you have to look at all aspects, not just make a shoot-from-the-hip decision. Because you don’t know … you just don’t know what will happen,” she said.

One such decision, made about six years ago, haunts her.

A man who was on parole after serving time for a felony drunken driving conviction was before the parole board. He’d been caught drinking in violation of the terms of his parole, but hadn’t broken any laws. Craven believed he needed to get back into a treatment program for alcoholism in his community, and so his parole was reinstated, allowing him to remain out of prison and to seek treatment.

Not long after, the man went for a drive. He was drunk.

“He had an accident, and someone ended up dead. It was a long time ago, but,” Craven said pausing to swallow and fight back tears, “Sorry. That’s what you deal with… You make the best decision that you can.”

If her years on the job inured her to criticism from inmates or victims’ families, it also seemed to toughen her response to criticism from colleagues.

Over the past 15 years the commission has been repeatedly criticized by the state auditors at the Office of Performance Evaluation for doing a poor job with record-keeping and communication, which auditors felt slowed the parole process. An audit in 2010 found that only 17 percent of inmates with tentative parole dates were released on time in 2008.

Craven’s commission and the Idaho Department of Correction made several of the changes recommended in the audit report, but she resisted others, contending that she didn’t have the staff or that the recommendations would harm the parole process.

When Craven first took the post, everything was done on paper and that remained the case for several years. Five years ago the commission switched to word documents for files, but in 2012 the Office of Performance Evaluation noted that Craven had been resistant to switching to an Excel spreadsheet system, which auditors believed would reduce errors and increase efficiency.

Craven defends her choices, contending that she had neither the time nor the staff to revamp the commissions’ entire filing and documenting system. Her regrets are focused more on the human side of things:

“Everything is political. The thing I probably can criticize myself most on is not spending enough time with legislators,” Craven said.

Though she started the job during the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s, she talks excitedly about the changes coming under Idaho’s new Justice Reinvestment effort, which some have dubbed the “smart on crime” approach.

“She certainly wasn’t soft on crime, ever,” said former Sen. Denton Darrington, a Republican from Declo who led the Senate Judiciary Committee for much of Craven’s career. “She wanted to do the right thing by those who come in front of the parole board. Her complete dedication to public safety and a complete understanding that the role that the parole commission plays into that.”

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, the current chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, lauded Craven’s work ethic during her career.

“I really credit her for being able to work and do the best she could in really lean times,” Lodge said.

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